STATE OF THE UNION
For 29 NHL teams, the offseason is about figuring out what went wrong. Why didn't we make the playoffs? Why didn't we win in the playoffs? How do we fix our offense? How do we solidify our defense? How can we improve enough to win the Stanley Cup?
The biggest problem for the Pittsburgh Penguins this offseason was making sure the Stanley Cup didn't sink to the bottom of Mario Lemieux's swimming pool.
While that's clearly a well-constructed joke designed to get a laugh, it's also a mild exaggeration of the truth. The offseason for a Stanley Cup champion, while filled with parties and celebrations, can also be very stressful. No one has immunity from the detriments of free agency, and now you're the target for those 29 other teams.
Free-agent defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill were the targets of two teams – the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens. Scuderi took four years and $13.6 million from the Kings and Gill signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Habs. Neither will ever be mistaken for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but Gill and Scuderi were tremendously valuable in their roles as defensive defensemen.
Scuderi was a plus-23 and blocked 164 shots last season. Gill was effective as well, posting a plus-11 with 112 blocked shots. During the Stanley Cup Final, Scuderi's multiple shot blocks while on his knees in the crease during the final seconds of Game 6 exemplified what his defensive prowess meant for the Pens.
It's not as though Penguins GM Ray Shero wasn't aware of this. It's why he signed defenseman Jay McKee, who fits the mold of a quiet, steady, defensive defenseman that the Penguins need. McKee, an ace shotblocker, will never win a Norris Trophy (sorry, Jay), but he's a veteran presence with 740 career games on his resume.
With the back line shored up, it's time to the turn the attention to replacing all the forwards the Penguins lost.
That is, if they lose any forwards.
During the offseason following the Penguins' loss to the Red Wings in the Cup Final, all of the attention was on Marian Hossa. Could Pittsburgh re-sign the sniper? How could the Pens replace him once he agreed to a deal with the Red Wings?
One year later, things couldn't be more different.
The biggest loss for the Pens on offense appears to be veteran forward Petr Sykora, who has yet to re-sign. Sykora's 25 goals were third on the team last season, and while he was injured for most of the postseason, he'll be remembered fondly by Pens fans for blocking a shot in Game 6 against the Red Wings that broke his foot.
But Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Craig Adams are all back to provide support for Crosby and Malkin, who won the Art Ross Trophy.
Guerin excelled in the playoffs (15 points) playing mostly with Crosby. Fedotenko is a two-time Cup winner who brings a wealth of experience, and Adams is the defensive specialist every team needs.
All the pieces aren't back for the 2009-10 Penguins, but there's certainly enough to get them to a third straight Stanley Cup Final.
It's never easy cracking an NHL roster, but it's exponentially more difficult to crack the roster of a team that's been to the Stanley Cup Final the past two years.
However, the Penguins are a team that doesn't shy away from going to their AHL club for reinforcements. Just ask defenseman Alex Goligoski, who found his way onto the Penguins' roster last season after Sergei Gonchar was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Goligoski scored 6 goals and 14 assists for 20 points in 45 games and also appeared in two Stanley Cup Playoff games.
So who's the next Alex Goligoski in the Penguins' organization? It's quite possible it could be any of these five prospects:
Eric Tangradi -- The 20-year-old left wing put up monster numbers (38 goals, 50 assists) for the OHL's Belleville Bulls last season. He suffered a hand laceration during an OHL playoff game, but was able to attend prospects camp last month. Finding room on a Stanley Cup champion's roster is never easy, but Tangradi's time could be coming sooner than later.
Alex Grant -- The offensive-minded defenseman has the speed and talent to make it at the next level. Still only 20 years old, Grant put up 13 goals and 37 assists for 50 points in 50 games between his time with the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs and Shawinigan Cataractes last season. He's still a year or two away.
Casey Pierro-Zabotel -- The 6-1, 205-pound center improved by leaps and bounds with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. After scoring 48 points in 49 games in 2007-08, Pierro-Zabotel piled up 36 goals and 79 assists in 72 games last season. Still, he needs time to develop defensively.
Dustin Jeffrey -- He's not the most offensively gifted player, but he showed the Penguins think he's almost NHL-ready by playing in 14 games with the big club last season. The gritty center will have to show his toughness if he wants to make his next call-up a permanent one.
Luca Caputi -– An NHL power forward waiting to happen, the 21-year-old had 18 goals and 45 points in 66 games with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the AHL. He should get a chance to win a roster spot out of training camp.
If a lot of the names in the 2009 draft class of the Pittsburgh Penguins sound familiar, that's because they set an unofficial record for selecting relatives for former NHL players.
Defenseman Phillip Samuelsson (son of Ulf Samuelsson), Alex Velischek (son of Randy Velischek) and Andy Bathgate (grandson of the former Rangers great and original Penguin of the same name) were three of the Stanley Cup champions' seven selections in this year's Entry Draft. But the Penguins don't think these teens are going to get by on name alone.
"I liked his skating and his hockey sense, his puck skills," Penguins Director of Amateur Scouting Jay Heinbuck said of Velischek. "He wanted to carry the bacon, so to speak, in the games I went to. I liked his compete level. He's a fairly thick kid and he will have time to develop into an even better skater. He's got time to develop at Providence College."
Here's a quick look at Pittsburgh's draft class:
Simon Despres -- The 6-foot-4, 205-pound defenseman led Saint John (QMJHL) with a plus-16 rating and was tops among his team's blueliners with 32 points (2 goals, 30 assists). Ranked eighth among North American skaters by Central Scouting, the Penguins might've grabbed a real steal late in the first round.
Philip Samuelsson -- Two picks, two defensemen. The son of Ulf Samuelsson, who played on the Penguins' Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992, was picked in the second round and is headed to Boston College. The 6-foot-3, 198-pounder didn't score a goal but had 22 assists for Chicago of the USHL.
Ben Hanowski --The right wing set a Little Falls (Minn.) High School record with 110 points in 25 games last season. Of course, that means very little in terms of translating into NHL success. Hanowski, chosen in the third round will try to hone his craft at the college level, as he will attend St. Cloud State.
Nick Petersen -- The 6-foot-2, 186-pound forward was the sixth-leading scorer (90 points in 68 games) in the QMJHL last season. The most likely scenario for the fourth-rounder has him seeing time with the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Alex Velischek -- The second of three legacies drafted by the Penguins, the 6-foot, 200-pound defenseman, chosen in the fifth round was part of Delbarton (N.J.) High School's second straight state championship last season and will attend Providence College in the fall.
Andy Bathgate -- The grandson of the original Penguin of the same name battled through shoulder problems with Belleville of the OHL last season, but still went in the fifth round. The center was held to 4 goals and 12 assists in 44 games.
Viktor Ekbom -- The 6-foot-1, 187-pound defenseman, a sixth-round pick, isn't going to dazzle anyone with his offensive skills, but he could develop into a solid stay-at-home blueliner.