Offense has been as much a trademark of the Pittsburgh Penguins
as the Primanti's sandwich has been with the city's residents.
From Jean Pronovost through Mario Lemieux
, Ron Francis
and Jaromir Jagr
to the 1-2 combo of Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
, the Penguins have always been able to put the puck in the net.
But while Sid and Geno have turned the Penguins into annual contenders, a newly-constructed defensive unit may be the group that determines whether the Pens have a Stanley Cup in their future next spring.
After an up-and-down 2009-10 season that resulted in a disappointing second-round playoff exit, General Manager Ray Shero
found himself wondering what went wrong.
His conclusion was inconsistent defensive play. His solution was Paul Martin
and Zbynek Michalek
, two of the most sought-after players in the 2010 class of free-agent defenseman. Both signed five-year contracts on the first day of free agency.
With the season opener less than a week away, there's a buzz in the locker room and an even bigger potential impact on the ice.
"We're a more all-around defensive squad now," defenseman Kris Letang
said at the start of camp. "Those guys can bring the puck around well, and that can help us out on both ends of the ice."
That includes the end of the ice typically occupied by the likes of Crosby and Malkin, but both feel comfortable with management's efforts to bolster the defense and believe the team will benefit from it.
"I think we are definitely a team that improved over the summer," Crosby said. "With the guys that we have, they are good at retrieving pucks, good at avoiding checks to make plays and making that pass that is important when you want to go the other way and play offense."
"We're definitely going to be really strong there. When games get closer and you play really good teams, they are going to help a lot."
They better. The Penguins are counting on Martin and Michalek to replace prolific offensive defenseman Sergei Gonchar
-- annually praised as one of the NHL's best quarterbacking skills on the power play. Gonchar elected to sign with Ottawa.
Gonchar's departure left a huge void to be filled -- and it didn't go unnoticed.
"We lost a big part of our team and our power play," Letang said. "But somebody's going to have to step up to do the job."
Does Letang see himself as a candidate?
"Obviously, you want to bring more to the table offensively now and on the power play, too," he said. "It's definitely a good opportunity."
Almost as good as the opportunity that attracted Michalek to Pittsburgh.
For the former Phoenix Coyote, signing with the Penguins and getting some exposure to his new home has only reaffirmed his belief that there's something special brewing in Pittsburgh.
"I know it's a good organization," Michalek said. "They take care of the players and their families and it was really good coming here. Everyone was friendly and trying to help me out."
"There are a lot of new faces here, so I'm still adjusting, but the first impression is good."
Coming from a franchise surrounded by uncertainty, the Penguins' recent and potentially future successes were too attractive for the talented two-way defenseman to pass up.
"I obviously saw a good team [in Pittsburgh], and a team that has a chance to battle for a Stanley Cup every single year," he said. "That's something I was looking for.
"I'm a competitive guy and I want to win. I saw the best chance of winning here, and that's why I chose this team."
The same could be said of Martin, for whom the decision of coming to Pittsburgh hinged slightly on a green-light given by a former teammate.
"I talked to a couple of guys like [former Devils forward] Mike Rupp
," he said. "Everything was positive. It was an easy decision for me."
But not solely because of Rupp's recommendation.
"With the guys that we have, they are good at retrieving pucks, good at avoiding checks to make plays and making that pass that is important when you want to go the other way and play offense." -- Sidney Crosby
"You make the best decision you can with what you've got," he said. "The guys here, the caliber players they have here, the city, the fans, you put down on paper as why you'd want to go somewhere."
As Martin assimilates himself into a new city, team and, literally, a new arena -- the Penguins are moving into the brand-new Consol Energy Center -- equally as challenging will be the adjustment to a system that seems foreign when compared with that of his former employer, the New Jersey Devils
Martin looks forward to getting away from the Devils' defense-first style and playing in coach Dan Bylsma
's up-tempo system.
"I'm excited. I think it will better suit my game," he said, referring to the system Bylsma has instituted in Pittsburgh, which seeks to move the puck up the ice quickly.
That approach isn't to be confused with carelessness, either, Martin warned.
"The Penguins put a lot of emphasis on the defense, they just use everybody to do it," he said. "Which is similar to New Jersey, [but] we're just a little more aggressive trying to get the puck out."
As for the adjustment so far, "there are a couple small tweaks here and there, but I don't think there will be much of a transition period."
Bylsma doesn't think so, either, given his praise of Martin throughout camp.
"I'm not sure we can compare him with anybody on our defense in terms of his smarts with the puck and his ability to make reads and make that pass," he said. "A real poised guy with the puck."
Martin and Michalek round off a defense that will also feature hard-hitting, stabilizing defensive-defenseman Brooks Orpik
, smooth-skating Alex Goligoski
, who can quarterback a power play in the future, and Letang.
That leaves one vacancy on the top six, as well as a spot for a seventh defenseman, with players like Ben Lovejoy
and Deryk Engelland
among the five hopefuls still in the mix.
At the end of the day, the issues that plagued the Penguins too often last season have the chance to become strengths -- perhaps as synonymous with the team moving forward as the offense has been in the past.