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Offseason Moves Make Penguins Tougher To Play Against

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
“We want to be a team that’s tough to play against.”

Former New Jersey Devil Paul Martin brings a strong two-way game to Pittsburgh. Credit - Getty Images
If Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said the above quote once last season, he said it 1,000 times.

For most of the season the Penguins were a tough team to play against. They finished the 2009-10 campaign with 101 points – third most in the Eastern Conference – and came within one win of advancing to a third straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance.

However, in professional sports, the moment a team becomes complacent with their personnel, that’s usually right about the same time they find themselves plummeting down the overall standings.

With that in mind, general manager Ray Shero set out this summer looking to fortify the Penguins roster heading into 2010-11.

As the calendar gets set to flip from August to September, and with training camp right around the corner, it looks like Shero accomplished his goal.

Shero’s work began on June 22 when he re-signed potential unrestricted free agent forward Matt Cooke – a players whose name would come up in many top-10 lists of toughest players to play against – to a three-year extension.

Then, not long after the free agent signing period officially began at noon on July 1, Shero revamped the Penguins’ defensive corps by snagging two of the top defensemen available on the open market when he inked former New Jersey Devil Paul Martin and ex-Phoenix Coyote Zbynek Michalek to five-year contracts.

Shero completed his mission on August 20 by signing former Philadelphia Flyer Arron Asham – an agitating yet versatile and talented offensive performer in the Cooke mold – to a one-year deal.

“I think we have made some great acquisitions this year bringing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to help solidify our defense,” forward Pascal Dupuis said. “I always hated playing against Arron Asham when he was with Philadelphia because he is tough to play against. I’m glad he is now on our side.”

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby agreed with Dupuis. Crosby believes that retaining Cooke and adding these three new faces – combined with the hunger that exists following the second-round loss to Montreal – is only going to make the team better in the long run.

“I think going into this year we have high expectations,” Crosby said. “Having a little bit longer summer than usual this year – I think guys are going to be eager to get back at it. We’re excited to get this group together.”

When Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins take the ice at CONSOL Energy Center for the first day of training camp it’s not going to take them long to realize how improved the team is going to be defensively and in the transition game thanks to the presence of Martin and Michalek.

Zbynek Michalek's shot-blocking acumen adds an element the Penguins were missing in '09-10. Credit - Getty Images
“One of the areas we think we can get better at and sure up is to be a team that is stronger defensively,” Bylsma said. “To be able to add one of the league’s better shot-blocking defensemen and a real shutdown defenseman in Michalek – one who is still a young, improving defender who logs a lot of minutes – that is a huge addition.

Paul Martin is an outstanding defenseman at both ends of the rink. He is very good offensively and is very poised with the puck. He makes a great first pass. He can defend and play in every situation.”

“These guys are going to be great for us,” Crosby said. “The fact that we are going to have them for five years – that’s a big commitment. The hardest thing nowadays is to keep teams together so it’s great to get that kind of commitment from them. They are also two solid people as well from what I have heard.”

One player who can speak to the character of both Michalek and Martin is Dupuis. The Penguins winger spent time playing with Michalek during the ’03-04 season with the Minnesota Wild, while Dupuis and Martin have spent past summers training together.

“Zbynek is not afraid to put his body on the line to block shots and he makes a great first pass out of the zone,” Dupuis said. “He is excellent in his own zone.

Paul Martin is one of those guys who can play keep away with the puck for an hour without getting it knocked off his stick. He is a great guy who will be good for our team.”

Bylsma is excited because Michalek and Martin not only add elements that were missing last year, but they will also help deepen the defensive corps.

“These additions give us a really solid top-five,” Bylsma said. “The competition we have with young players coming up – Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland, Andrew Hutchinson, Steve Wagner – we have a lot of guys who are going to be able to compete for the sixth and seventh spots. That is going to sure up our defense.”

Up front, adding Asham, who scored 10 times and picked up 24 points in 72 games with the Flyers last year, gives the Penguins another option to potentially fill some of the vacancies which exist on the team’s top-three lines.

Arron Asham gives the Penguins another option to crack the team's top-three lines. Credit - Getty Images
Between Asham, Cooke, Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Maxime Talbot, Tyler Kennedy, Mike Rupp and youngsters Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson, Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey, the competition to join Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal at the top of the depth chart is going to be as fierce as it’s been in long time.

“There are going to be some spots up for grab at camp,” Crosby said. “It’s not always like that so the guys that are going to be fighting for those spots are going to make the most of that opportunity. That should make for a pretty spirited camp and help us out in the long run.”

All of which should add up to a pretty scary thought for Penguins’ opponents – this year’s team figures to be an even tougher unit for the league to deal with.

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