QUESTION: We all know its a possibility that Evgeni Malkin could be a Penguin next year. What about Johannes Salmonsson, Erik Christensen, Noah Welch, and possibly the 1st round pick we get this year?
-Kody Helbig of Freedom, PA
BOB GROVE: Johannes Salmonsson, a second-round pick in 2004 who represented Sweden at the 2006 World Junior championships, surprised the Penguins recently by signing a two-year deal with Brynes of the Swedish Elite League upon completing his junior career with Spokane of the Western Hockey League. This does not preclude the Penguins from signing him, but it means the Penguins must pay a transfer fee to Brynas if they want to do so. Salmonsson was not a big offensive force at the World Juniors but remains a promising prospect for the Penguins, although there's nothing to suggest he's ready to make a run at the NHL roster.
Erik Christensen could probably benefit from getting a little bigger, but he's got the skills to play in the NHL. He just needs to develop the consistency that's often difficult for younger players. He's also a center in an organization that features Sidney Crosby, (perhaps) Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Malone, Maxime Talbot and Krys Kolanos, so it's a bit of an understatement to say that Christensen has plenty of competition. If Malkin does make it here next season, it's difficult to see Christensen making the team out of camp.
Noah Welch, who played six games with the Penguins this season and didn't miss a beat, is expected to make the team next season unless he has a disastrous camp. He's got size and smarts, the willingness to hit people and a very good slap shot.
At this point it seems unlikely that any of the top-rated draft prospects -- Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, Jordan Staal or Jon Toews -- will be playing in the NHL next season.
QUESTION: Sidney Crosby was 4th on the team with penalty minutes with 110. Is there a stat based on how many opponent penalty minutes Crosby has drawn this season?
-Markiian Kliuchkovskyi of Pittsburgh
BOB GROVE: There are no official statistics kept by the National Hockey League for penalties drawn by players, but I think it's safe to say that Sidney Crosby would be among the league leaders if there were such numbers. I recall a game earlier this season at Mellon Arena in which I had Crosby drawing five or six penalties. The ability to force opponents into penalties translates into power plays and scoring chances for your team, so that number, were it compiled, would be another good indicator of a player's value.
A player who draws penalties is usually working hard. He's got the puck and a step on an opposing player, leading to a hooking, tripping or holding penalty; perhaps he's anticipated or read a play well and forced an opponent to take an interference penalty; perhaps he's outworked an opponent in a battle along the boards and drawn a roughing penalty out of frustration. We know that Crosby has the talent to put up points in this league, but let's not forget that he has the work ethic and determination to match that skill.
QUESTION: The way I learned the game of hockey was watching games with my dad. In between periods there was a cartoon puck named "Peter Puck" What ever happened to Peter?
-Amy Wagner of Pittsburgh
BOB GROVE: I, too, remember watching Peter Puck. He was the creation of NBC-TV (and Hanna-Barbera) back when they had the NHL Game of the Week for two years beginning in 1973, and he was the star of intermission segments in which he explained the rules of the game to those unfamiliar with hockey. Peter also aired for five seasons on Hockey Night in Canada. Peter Puck just faded away after that, but I for one would love to see him brought back to entertain and educate young fans.
QUESTION: I've been a Penguins fan my whole life and can't wait for them to make the playoffs next year. I was wondering what might be the penguins chances of landing Zdeno Chara this off-season if the Sens don't re-sign him?
-Steve Culmone of Toronto, Ont.
BOB GROVE: A lot of Penguins' fans are attuned to the fact Zdeno Chara will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and they'd all like to see him in a Pittsburgh uniform. That's perfectly understandable, since the 6-9 defenseman is mobile, has an amazing reach, good puck skills and kills penalties and plays the power play (in front of the net).
The problem, of course, is that 29 other teams are going to want him, too. That should include his current team, the Ottawa Senators. That means the bidding will be intense and the cost will be significant. Still, the Penguins will have plenty of cap room this off-season, and if ownership has the money to sign him, I don't think you could go wrong investing in this guy.
QUESTION: I just wondered if you thought the Penguins had tried too hard at the start of this season to make all of the right moves and acquisitions, and if you think they are going in a similar direction for next year. Last year it seemed that instead of tweaking the team they already had, they decided to make a major overhaul of their team. I was excited that they got some experienced veteran players such as Recchi and Palffy, but also felt they overdid it by paying so much for Thibault and Gonchar. They could have saved a lot of money and possibly have had a more cohesive team if they had built on the foundation they already had. I thought Tarnstrom and Malone were the leaders of the team and they should have been upset after playing so good one year only to get rewarded by being replaced with other players. I fear this might happen again next year which might lead to losing more players that are just starting to improve.
-Marc Jelinek of Pittsburgh
BOB GROVE: There's no question that the Penguins' off-season moves last summer were ambitious: with Sidney Crosby drafted, the decision was made to expand the payroll significantly and speed up the process of turning a last-place team into a playoff team. That meant the roster had a whole new look, and you mentioned one of the problems inherent with that approach: the potential for a lack of cohesion or chemistry.
In the end, obviously, it did not work, although I have trouble blaming management for being bold. It would have been far more difficult to defend taking a very limited role in the free agent market after you had spent years creating spending room for yourself in the salary cap era. While Gonchar's contract was hefty, Thibault earned just $1.5 million this season, hardly an unmanageable sum.
Tarnstrom and Malone were arguably the 2003-04 team's best offensive players, but I wouldn't quite characterize them as the team's leaders. Pittsburgh management always had concerns about Tarnstrom's defensive play, for one, and while Malone had a great rookie season, the Penguins were anxious to see if he could repeat it. Those two weren't really replaced at the start of the season -- they were given competition and, for whatever reason, didn't respond well in the opening months of the season. Malone, however, has rebounded with a terrific second half. That's part of the maturation process.
I think we'll see the Penguins take a more cautious approach to free agency and/or the trade market this summer. They still need to find a bona-fide big scorer to play with Crosby, and perhaps one to play with Evgeni Malkin as well, and they need to upgrade their defense. But I think they'll do more of what you're talking about, which is building on the foundation they have in Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney, Noah Welch, Brooks Orpik, Gonchar, Crosby, (hopefully) Malkin, Malone, Colby Armstrong, Konstantin Koltsov and Andy Hilbert. We're not quite as sure about where Thibault, John LeClair, Erik Christensen, Michel Ouellet, Tomas Surovy, Rob Scuderi, Josef Melichar, Eric Boguniecki, Matt Murley, Andre Roy and Krys Kolanos fit in.
But there is a sense of team among the players in that first group, and the Penguins need to preserve that while complementing it with the right players. This summer, the team needs a lighter touch.
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