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2009 Training Camp Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins will embarked on a new journey in the 2009-10 season and the team took its first, single step Saturday, reporting for training camp at the UPMC facility in the South Side (see full camp schedule and public practices here).

As reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins face the enormous task of defending their crown. They will be challenged every night by the other 29 teams in the National Hockey League that want to achieve what Pittsburgh did last season.

The Penguins proved to be the best team in the NHL last year. But that was last year.

Sidney Crosby (Getty Images)
This year, Pittsburgh is just one of 30 teams beginning a quest for the Stanley Cup. So while the team enjoyed a summer of basking in the glory of their championship accomplishments, the time has come to start over.

There are a few new faces in the locker room, but the Penguins core remains the same. Pittsburgh has 18 players returning this year that contributed to the team’s championship season, including all-world center Sidney Crosby, NHL scoring champion and post-season MVP Evgeni Malkin, top-tier goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, two-way center Jordan Staal and dependable blueliners Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik.

The work must begin anew. The foundation must be built. Every season presents unique challenges, circumstances and obstacles. Every season also presents new hope and opportunities.

Last year the Penguins fulfilled their goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to the city of Pittsburgh. The time has come to forget about last year and forge ahead.

New team. New season. Same goal. Same result? Time will tell.

Let the journey begin…
One of the difficult tasks for the Penguins coaching staff is trying to maintain the team’s confidence from its championship season while also getting the players to refocus for the current campaign.

“It’s one of those things that you wrestle with as a coach and as a coaching staff,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I think winning is something that you take with you. It’s not something you try to forget about. At the same time, the nature of what we’re doing is that we’re trying to get back and win it again. We’re one of 30 teams that are trying to win it. That’s got to be our approach heading into training camp.”

Penguins bench (Getty Images)
That’s the message that Bylsma and his staff are preaching to the players as they set out to start the new season. Business as usual.

“It’s no different than any other year where you set out to become the best team you can be and put your name into that hat at the end of the season to be one of the teams competing for the Stanley Cup,” Bylsma said. “That’s a challenge for us, especially with the mindset of where we’re coming from. We’re not going to deny the fact that we won but we are going to try to focus on what we need to do, which is get to work here. (Saturday) is the start of a chance to win in 2010. That’s what we’re focused on and we want to lay that foundation.”

“Last year was last year,” center Jordan Staal said. “You have to put it behind you. It’s nice to remember that but at the same time, it’s a new year. We all know how difficult it is to win that Cup, how much time and effort we need to put into it. Hopefully we can do it again.”

One thing is for sure, the Penguins aren’t satisfied with being a one-hit wonder. Winning the Cup hasn’t made them any less hungry for a championship.

“We’ve tasted it and now we want to win it again,” Staal said. “We still have the same drive. It’s hard to get there every year. We’ve had that feeling of winning it. You can’t really describe it unless you win it.”

“You’re proud of what you did and you enjoyed it but you have to realize that none of the other teams care,” veteran forward Bill Guerin said. “They all want a piece of it and want to come after you. There’s not going to be one easy night this year because teams always want to knock off the defending champs. If you don’t think that then you’re fooling yourself. If you prepare for it then you’re better off. I think our team is still hungry. I think we proved a lot to ourselves last year. Some things have changed but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Getty Images
The Penguins will wear the bull’s eye every time they touched the ice as opponents try to measure themselves against the defending champions. So Pittsburgh will have to play its best game night in and night out.

“We set the bar last year but a lot of teams will be very motivated to beat us,” said Sidney Crosby, the youngest captain to hoist the Stanley Cup. “There’s a big responsibility and a big sense of pride that comes with that. We have to be ready every night because we’re going to see everyone’s best.”

“Every night teams will be ready for us,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “Every game will be tough since we’re the champions. Everyone is going to want to prove that they can beat us. I think we have a big year ahead of us.”

“You know and realize that every team will bring their best every night because we won last year,” gritty forward Matt Cooke said. “That’s a huge challenge for us and I think that is a great opportunity for this group to show their strength.”

For Bylsma, it isn’t a matter of defending the title. While last year’s team won the Stanley Cup, this year’s team hasn’t accomplished anything yet.

“I don’t view us as defending,” Bylsma said. “I don’t view us as carrying the trophy from game to game and putting it out at center ice and saying ‘You have to come get it from us.’ We’re going back and it’s 1 of 30 teams. The challenge for us is to be driven to do the necessary work, build the necessary habits to be focused on those things so that we can figure out how good we can become and how we’re going to win hockey games as a team.”
The Penguins return 18 players from last season’s championship team. But two glaring pieces missing from last year’s title puzzle are defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill.

Scuderi, who signed with Los Angeles, and Gill, who signed with Montreal, were key components to Pittsburgh’s success. The two defensive-minded blueliners logged a lot of ice time and played against opposing teams top scorers.

However, in the salary cap age one of the unfortunate side effects of winning is that you will lose key pieces to your team.

“We are losing certain aspects of our team but kept some components of last season,” Bylsma said. “But every season, whether you keep components or not, is about coming together as a team, finding roles, finding how we’re going to play, finding how we’re going to have success. Then the team taking that, buying it and running with it.”

Kris Letang (Getty Images)
The absence of Scuderi and Gill creates an opportunity for expanded roles for young defensemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski.

“Our defense is going to look different,” Bylsma said. “We’re not going to have the traditional match-up that we had with Scuderi and Gill. Alex Goligoski will add something to our defense that those two could not, in terms of being able to skate and get up ice. Our defense is going to look different but it adds to the way we want to play with getting up ice, speed, having our defense join the rush. Kris Letang has a chance to grow into a more defensive role along with his offensive abilities.”

Letang, 22, enters his third full NHL season. The skillfully gifted blueliner was a regular in Pittsburgh’s lineup and led all Penguins’ defensemen with 33 points (10+23). Letang saw time on the power play and his ice time will increase this season.

“I’m just going to play my role from last year and try to improve my game,” Letang said. “I’m going to try to improve as a player and try to win again. You can’t change the mind of a player. They were two great players defensively. Defensively I’m going to play the same way and try to improve every year.”

Goligoski, 24, is another offensively talented player on the back end. The Minnesota native saw action in 45 games for the Penguins last year and is expected to make a push for NHL permanency this year.

“It’s tough to lose guys like that but it creates an opportunity,” Goligoski said. “It’s definitely a big opportunity for me. I’m excited. I’m ready to go. With two weeks left in the summer I was ready to get out of Minnesota and get back here. I’m really excited about this year.”

Jay McKee (Getty Images)
Penguins general manager Ray Shero also added some depth to the team’s defensive corps with the signing of free agent Jay McKee. The 12-year veteran is a stay-at-home defenseman and shot blocking specialist.

“It’s tough losing anyone,” Crosby said. “The guys we brought in will help. Jay McKee fits the same type of mold as those (Scuderi and Gill). He’s a guy that’s defensive minded, a shutdown guy. He’ll be good for us. That’s hockey. You lose guys. It’s unfortunate, especially when you share something like that together. You have to do that year after year. I don’t think it’s anything new for a lot of us.”

“They’ve got something really special here and for Mr. Shero to want to bring me in to help defend that title is an honor in itself,” McKee said. “I’m going to come in and do what I do best to help them defend it.”

“(McKee) could be one of those guys that fills in the stopper role,” Bylsma said. “The defense is going to be a work in progress. I don’t mean that from the standpoint that they have to improve. We’re going to have to find out how we play and how we have success. I have a lot of confidence that will be a good thing.”
Another missing piece (although only temporary) is clutch playoff performer Maxime Talbot.

Talbot, who scored both Pittsburgh goals in their 2-1 Stanley Cup-clinching victory in Game 7 at Detroit, had shoulder surgery in the offseason that will sideline him until December.

“It is tough; Every time you’re hurt, you’re in the box or dressing room watching the game you wish you could be there and battling with the players,” Talbot said. “But it was time for me to get the surgery. I think it was the right decision. I’ll try to get it as strong as possible so I can come back and help the team.”

Max Talbot (Getty Imagse)
Talbot received positive news last Wednesday when doctors examined the progress of his shoulder surgery.

“I saw the doctor (Wednesday) and he said everything was good,” Talbot said. “I’m right on time. I’m pretty excited to come back. I’ll miss the start of the season but I’ll try to come back as quick as possible.”

Talbot’s absence from the early portion of the season creates an opening on the second line, where Talbot skated alongside Evgeni Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko. The void provides an opportunity for someone to play alongside a world-class talent in Malkin.

That hole could be filled by someone from last year’s roster or by a younger player in the Penguins organization. Some younger players vying for that position are forwards Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey and Luca Caputi.

“You never wish for one of your impact players, your gamers, to be out of the lineup but it does give our team a chance to grow,” Bylsma said. “That is going to give some younger players, even guys on our team last year in different roles, a chance to have an ability to play on the second line where Max was at the end of the year. There’ll be a lot of growth, some competition, some younger players have chances there.”

And when Talbot finally returns from his extensive rehab it will give the Penguins a mid-season boost.

“It’s going to bring some energy and a different look for our team when he does get back into the lineup,” Bylsma said. “It will also be a shot in the arm when Max does come back into our lineup and give us a different look.”

Author: Sam Kasan

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