PITTSBURGH - This might be the perfect scenario for any pro sports team: The Pittsburgh Penguins' core players remain implausibly young, yet seem to get better nearly every day.
Sidney Crosby, already a league MVP, scoring champion and two-time 100-point scorer, is only 20. (Sid's not quite a kid any longer, but he's still too young to frequent taverns in most places.)
Jordan Staal, a gifted scorer, is 19, yet was only a goal away from scoring 30 last season. Last season's rookie of the year, Evgeni Malkin, is only 21. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury won 40 games in a breakthrough season, but won't turn 23 until next month.
Consider this: There are top college teams that don't have so many important players this young, yet the Penguins - for the first time since the Lemieux-Jagr days - are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
"I think all the elements are in place," forward Maxime Talbot said. "For sure it's a long season, you never know what's going to happen, but I'm sure we've got the personnel and skill to win and that's exciting."
A year ago, the Penguins were expecting to improve substantially, but not dramatically, from their 22-win season of 2005-06. Instead, they made the fourth-best turnaround in NHL history, were one of the league's best teams in the second half and won more games (47) than all but one team in franchise history.
The only problem with becoming so good so quickly is the Penguins accelerated their timetable for Stanley Cup contention by several years. So, to make sure one of the youngest teams in major pro sports stays grounded, general manager Ray Shero brought in two former Stanley Cup winners in 35-year-old defenceman Darryl Sydor and 30-year-old forward Petr Sykora (22 goals, 53 points with Edmonton).
"I think I can bring a lot of playoff experience," said Sykora, who will open the season Friday at Carolina on a line with Crosby and Staal. "Even when I scored 25-30 goals, I never played with a player like Sidney or Malkin."
Shero now has picked up three playoff-proven players in less than a year. Gary Roberts, now 41, had seven goals and six assists in 19 games after being dealt by Florida at the trading deadline, then re-signed with the Penguins.
So did the 39-year-old Recchi, who had 24 goals and 68 points last season although his scoring dropped off late in the season.
That was the supposed downside of the Penguins until now: They didn't have enough players with substantial playoff experience to go with arguably the NHL's best collection of young players since the early-'80s Edmonton Oilers.
That's no longer a worry, even if Crosby remembers the Penguins felt they had similar cast two years ago in Recchi, Ziggy Palffy and John LeClair.
"There has to be a sense of focus to make sure we do something with these guys, and not take for granted that they're good players and good names and expect that it's going to be easy," Crosby said. "It's not."
The Penguins' five-game elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs by eventual Eastern Conference champion Ottawa proved that. As a result, this team's tangible goal is to go deeper in the post-season, even if an improved Atlantic Division doesn't allow the Penguins to improve upon their 47-24-11 record.
To do that, they'll need Fleury and defenceman Ryan Whitney (14 goals, 59 points) to build upon their strong seasons. They also need more production from several players whose numbers dropped, including forwards Colby Armstrong (40 points in 2005-06 to 34) and Ryan Malone (22 goals and 41 points in 2005-06 to 16 goals and 31 points).
If that happens, and they stay healthy, the Penguins should have the four steady lines and three strong defensive pairings most teams need to push for the Stanley Cup. Defencemen Mark Eaton, hurt much of last season, and Sydor give them two strong defenders to go with Whitney and Sergei Gonchar (67 points), two of the NHL's highest-scoring defencemen.
The special teams need only to remain as strong as before. The Penguins were on the power play a league-high 463 times, and Crosby had 61 of his league-best 120 points on special teams.
Several former potential distractions also have been eliminated.
Coach Michel Therrien, in place when Shero arrived 18 months ago, was given a one-year contract extension through 2008-09. And the Penguins don't have to worry about their arena or the franchise's future location; they will get a new arena in 2010 and are committed to staying in Pittsburgh through 2040.
"We have the team to do it, it's just a matter of pulling together and getting that chemistry and, hopefully from that, working for a Stanley Cup," Staal said. "The depth is pretty amazing. We've got four lines that can score and do everything well."