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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Crash the Net is a weekly web feature appearing Wednesdays on  Click here to submit a question.

QUESTION: What has to happen for the Penquins to officially acquire Evgeni Malkin for next season?

Joe Grice of Pittsburgh, PA

BOB GROVE: NHL teams retain the rights to their draft picks for two years, at which point unsigned players are returned to the draft. This rarely works out best for the player or the team, so very few players wind up going back into the draft. It has been rumored/speculated that the NHL will give all its teams one extra year to sign their Russian draft picks from 2004 since Russia did not opt to join the other European countries in the International Ice Hockey Federation agreement that spells out payments from NHL teams to European club teams who lose their players to the NHL.

So it's likely the Penguins will have until the summer of 2007 to sign Malkin -- if it takes that long.

All reports indicate that Malkin has one year remaining on his contract with Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League. He has publicly stated his desire to play here next year, so one would have to imagine that he has an escape clause in his current contract or that he has an oral agreement with Magnitogorsk that he can leave this summer if he reaches a contract agreement with the Penguins. The Penguins would not only have to sign him but reach an agreement with Magnitogorsk on the amount of money due the team.

So there's a few hurdles left to jump, but it appears likely the Penguins will be able to get Malkin here next season. One thing to remember, however, is this: Malkin is making good money at home. I've not seen any figures, but it's hardly out of the question that he might have to take a pay cut to play in the NHL. What the Penguins have going for them is that this kid wants to test himself against the best, and he can't do that in the Super League.

QUESTION: What is the state of the Pens defensemen?  I am hearing so much about Erik Johnson being a great pick for the Pens (if they get a pick that high).  I thought with all the stockpiling via draft picks in recent years that the team was set for a while with Orpik, Whitney, Scuderi, and Welch.

Rob St. Pierre of Concord, NH

BOB GROVE: Upgrading the defensive corps next season is mandatory. Before facing the Lightning Tuesday, the Penguins were last in the league in goals-against average (3.98) and penalty killing (77.0 percent) and 28th in shots allowed per game (34.0). Forwards and goaltenders impact these numbers, too, but the defensemen as a group have not had a good season.

They haven't been nearly physical enough, and their in-zone coverage has been lacking on most nights. They haven't won battles consistently, and their lack of speed has hurt them, too. Not one member of the group has had a season that matched expectations. Rob Scuderi and Ryan Whitney, playing what amounts to their first full NHL seasons, have struggled; so have veterans Josef Melichar, Sergei Gonchar and Ric Jackman. It's obvious Lyle Odelein, Cory Cross and Eric Cairns don't fit into the team's future plans.

Noah Welch should have a good chance to make the team next fall, but it's not fair to expect him to make an instant impact even if he is successful in reaching the NHL out of training camp. He'll be prone to the same pressures, challenges and learning curves as Whitney, although it will help any young player to play on a team that is more competitive than this one has been. All the losing undermines confidence, especially for young players.

As far as recently-drafted defensemen at the AHL level, it's uncertain whether Ryan Lannon (8th round 2002) or Andy Schneider (5th round 2001) will become NHL regulars as soon as next season. Paul Bissonnette (4th round 2003), Drew Fata (3rd round 2001) and Daniel Fernholm (4th round 2002) still must prove themselves at the AHL level; David Koci (5th round 2000), Chris Kelleher and Alain Nasreddine don't seem likely to reach the NHL.

QUESTION: Do you think that the Penguins need to add some skilled wingers to help get Sidney Crosby the puck more?

Larry Trowell of Forest, Ontario

BOB GROVE: There's no question that one of the many challenges facing the Penguins next season will be finding more skilled wingers. This is where Mario Lemieux and Ziggy Palffy were expected to help this season, and their retirements left holes the Penguins could not fill.

Mark Recchi, moved to Crosby's wing to replace Tomas Surovy two games before the Olympic break, has helped, although he and Crosby had teamed up on just two even-strength goals in four games together entering this week. And, of course, we have no assurances that Recchi will be here past tomorrow's NHL trading deadline.

The current roster includes Colby Armstrong, who has spent much of this season on Crosby's right wing and has established himself as a player who can contribute at this level; left wing John LeClair, whose productivity has jumped over the last dozen games and could also be traded; right wing Eric Boguniecki, who has some offensive skills but is not a top six forward; left wing Surovy, who hasn't established himself as a consistent scorer; right wing Konstantin Koltsov, who is not a top six forward; left wing Andre Roy, a fourth-line forward; and right wing Michel Ouellet, who has emerged almost as a power-play specialist and whose effectiveness at even strength still has to be questioned.

Ryan Malone has been better at center this season than at wing, although he's still finishing a very disappointing season no matter how you cut it. And you'll have Erik Christensen and Maxime Talbot back next season at center. So with Crosby and, hopefully, Evgeni Malkin here next year, Pittsburgh must upgrade its scoring punch from the wings. I don't think it will help either of those two players to be pushed out of position to play the wing.

The problem, of course, is that upgrades need to be made on defense as well. So it looks like a busy off-season.

Crash the Net is a weekly web feature appearing Wednesdays on  Click here to submit a question.

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