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30 PITTSBURGH Penguins
Mark Beech
October 13, 2003
Even with Mario Lemieux back, a young and undertalented squad is skating on thin ice
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October 13, 2003

30 Pittsburgh Penguins

Even with Mario Lemieux back, a young and undertalented squad is skating on thin ice

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Nobody in Pittsburgh could have been happier than new coach Ed Olczyk this summer when he heard that his boss, All-Star center and owner Mario Lemieux, had decided to play another season. After leading the Penguins, at age 37, with 91 points in 2002-03, Lemieux had been vague about whether he would return to the ice or work full time out of his CEO office. Olczyk, who succeeded the fired Rick Kehoe on June 11, was already looking at a roster that had been stripped of almost all of its veteran talent—including forwards Alexei Kovalev and Jan Hrdina—in a series of trades that trimmed the payroll by $3.8 million.

Other than Lemieux, the only marquee player left in Pittsburgh is forward Martin Straka, who scored 46 points in 60 games and will play on the first line with Lemieux and Aleksey Morozov. Behind them will be free-agent signees Kelly Buch-berger and Mike Eastwood, as well as a few of the fast, inexperienced young forwards the Penguins got in last season's salary dump, including right wing Matt Bradley, 25, and left wing Ramzi Abid, 23.

Olczyk, an NHL forward for 16 years before retiring in 2000, was hired out of the broadcast booth and has no coaching experience. He's implementing a system that combines speed with defensive responsibility, which should help a club that allowed 255 goals last year, the second-worst total in the East. "We'd be foolish if we didn't utilize our speed," he says. "We're going to pressure and be relentless."

Pittsburgh's $22-million-plus payroll is one of the lowest in pro sports, but at least Lemieux and G.M. Craig Patrick gave the franchise some hope for the future when they traded up for the No. 1 pick in the June draft and selected 18-year-old goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. He will start the season in Pittsburgh after signing a three-year, $15-million contract on Monday. "Our only goal is to make the playoffs," says Lemieux. "We don't care about the rest of the hockey world. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people." Anything but a last-place finish would amount to a surprise.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]