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New-look Penguins ready to start in new home

by Sergei J. Feldman
Just when you thought they were out, they pulled themselves back in.

For the past few seasons, that sentiment has more so been the story of the Pittsburgh Penguins

After watching the Detroit Red Wings celebrate with the Stanley Cup at Mellon Arena in 2008 (the "they were out" part), the Penguins responded the following season in the grandest of fashions, by engaging in a similar celebration after defeating that very team at Joe Louis Arena (the "they pulled themselves back in" part).

But last season, the defending champs -- picked by many to repeat in the chase for the Cup, especially when the Eastern Conference seemingly was there for the taking after Washington's first-round elimination -- were ousted in what turned out to be the final game at Mellon Arena when the No. 8-seeded Montreal Canadiens defeated Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the conference semifinals.

If the pattern continues, 2010-11 figures to be a pretty good year. At the very least, it will start out with a bang.

Take Oct. 7, 2010, for instance. That date marks the first game at the new Consol Energy Center, located across the street from the old barn. Joining the festivities will be none other than the archrival Philadelphia Flyers. In the city of Pittsburgh, there's no better way for the Penguins to break in their new home.

The home arena won't be the only new thing with the Penguins. Equally as new will be the product on the ice thanks to a summer of roster changes.

Management, coaches, players and fans will hope that all the new will breed a continued familiar pattern.

It was a summer of goodbyes for the Penguins this offseason.

Defenseman and top power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar, who became an unrestricted free agent July 1, elected to sign with the Ottawa Senators. Gonchar had spent the last five seasons with the Penguins and performed like a top defenseman year in and year out. During his time with the Penguins, Gonchar registered 259 points in 322 games.

Almost as important as Gonchar's on-ice production was his off-ice leadership. The Russian always was seen as a calming influence in the dressing room, and nowhere was it more evident than in his relationship with countryman Evgeni Malkin. When Malkin arrived in Pittsburgh, Gonchar moved Malkin into his house and eased him into life in the United States and the NHL.

Gonchar wasn't the only blueliner moving on. Mark Eaton, a solid defensive defenseman, signed with the New York Islanders. A shot-blocking machine, Eaton regularly sacrificed his body in front of shots and provided the Penguins' defense with championship toughness during his four seasons.

Jay McKee, brought in last season for blue-line depth, also is a free agent unlikely to return.

The offensive side of the ice took a hit, too. Veteran Bill Guerin -- an integral piece on the Penguins' 2009 championship team -- remains an unrestricted free agent, and in all likelihood will not return to the team this season. While his production slowed down last season, he still put up 21 goals and 45 points in 78 games. As was the case with Gonchar, Guerin's leadership and experience will be missed as much, if not more, than his on-ice play.

Ruslan Fedotenko, another UFA who clung to the reputation of being able to produce in the playoffs, also appears to have spent his final days in a Penguins sweater. Fedotenko had a disappointing regular season, and despite the belief that he'd produce when it mattered, had an equally disappointing postseason. He scored just 11 goals in 80 regular-season games and was pointless in six Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Alexei Ponikarovsky, brought in at the trade deadline to add a top-six forward scoring presence to the lineup, underachieved as a member of the Penguins, scoring just twice in 16 games following his acquisition from the Maple Leafs, and he scored just once in 11 playoff games.

With Gonchar and Eaton moving on, GM Ray Shero re-worked his defense.

On July 1, the first day of free agency, free agents Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek opted to sign five-year deals with the Penguins.

Martin, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, adds a strong, structured and experienced defensive game to a team looking for those very elements. In addition, his ability to move the puck up ice will bode well for a team with explosive up-front talent.

Michalek is a solid defensive player. A right-handed shot, he brings a different look to the Penguins. Mostly, though, he will be relied upon for his impressive two-way game and his physicality. 

Many have labeled the Penguins the winners of this year's free agency period and Martin and Michalek are the primary reasons. A secondary reason is a secondary player. Veteran tough-guy Arron Asham, specifically. Asham signed a one-year deal with the Penguins and brings a recent Stanley Cup Finals appearance to the table.

Shero's philosophy has long been that you can't have too many of those on a team. Moreover, though, Asham has the ability to score some goals. He could be a surprise candidate on a line with either Crosby, Malkin or Staal.

Despite nearly winning the Atlantic Division and advancing to the second round of the playoffs, the Penguins had an inconsistent and disappointing season.

Criticized for an up-and-down campaign, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will need to bounce back if the Penguins want to be Cup contenders. Fleury was one of the more important -- if not the most important -- pieces on the team that reached the Cup Final in consecutive seasons.

The acquisitions of Martin, Michalek, along with holdovers Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, should go a long way in helping the Penguins keep pucks from getting behind Fleury.

On offense, it's hard not to pinpoint Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal as vital pieces. The "Big Three" will be relied upon heavily to produce goals and points, especially since the highest-scoring non-center returning from last season's team is Pascal Dupuis, who had just 38 points.

One option available for coach Dan Bylsma is to shift Staal onto the wing on Malkin's line. That combination has been used before and has worked quite effectively. Other choices include relying on the emergence of prospects. Erik Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey, Nick Johnson, Chris Conner and Mark Letestu are among the candidates to take over the one or two available top-six forward positions.

Training camp next month figures to be especially competitive, which only will help the Penguins in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup in the inaugural season of the Consol Energy Center.

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