The Pittsburgh Penguins have re-established themselves quickly as an NHL power.
Going from the league’s worst record in 2005-06 to playing for the Stanley Cup two seasons later, the Penguins have made a rapid progression.
General Manager Ray Shero hopes that only continues this season. Even though the Penguins did not walk away from last season hoisting the Stanley Cup, he knows the young team took away an important ingredient for a championship – experience.
“The natural progression of the franchise from two years ago was to be competitive and be a playoff team and, once we got there, to remain a playoff team,” said Shero, who enters his third season with the Penguins. “I look back two years ago to when we played Ottawa in the playoffs and lost in five games, I thought the experience of being in the playoffs and playing those critical games down the stretch and the five-game series and knowing the pressure would benefit us last season. The same thing is going to carry over to this year, in that we played a lot of big games last year and a lot of critical playoff games and overtime games, so that experience for our young group is really going to be beneficial for us down the road for this season and the next few seasons.”
While the Penguins broke through to make the playoffs in 2006-07 and were eliminated in five games by Ottawa, they got a solid postseason baptism last year during their drive to the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference titles. Yet, the impact of that playoff push is something that can’t be expressed on a trophy or a banner.
“In the last two years, we played a number of important playoff games and in critical situations,” Shero said. “When you look at players and trying to acquire players, you always look at players who have playoff success or playoff experience or Stanley Cup championship experience or whatever it is. Just in this locker room right now with our young group, they have that, short of a Stanley Cup, obviously, but they have that playoff experience and they’ve been to the Finals and know what that’s like. I think that’s an invaluable experience for these young players and certainly even for our older players. It’s only going to benefit us moving forward. It’s something we need to learn from – the experience gained last season is something we need to apply to this season and see where it takes us.”
Leading the way for the Penguins is a talented young core of players – all of whom took less money to stay in Pittsburgh when they signed long-term contracts. It started with Ryan Whitney and Sidney Crosby last summer and continued this year with Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik.
“I think it’s great for the fans, first of all, for our ownership group, with Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, that they gave us the ability to do this. Without that financial support, it doesn’t happen,” Shero said. “So, starting with our ownership group and our fans, I am happy for them. A number of these players were drafted by the Penguins and some of these guys have come through Wilkes-Barre/Scranton together and some just started here in Pittsburgh. With Orpik and Whitney and Crosby and Fleury and Malkin and all these guys we have locked up now, I think it’s great for the organization and sets the table, moving forward, that you have these pieces in place and you move around that and try to build your team accordingly. I am happy for the players and I am happy for the players who committed here. It shows a lot to the city and the organization – they believe we are going the right direction.”
Head coach Michel Therrien earned a three-year contract extension this summer as well. He and his coaches have played key roles in transforming the Penguins into an NHL power.
“With Mike, I think he’s very deserving. He is another guy who came through Wilkes-Barre/Scranton,” Shero said. “He tried to put in his principles and philosophies well before I got here. For the couple years I have worked with him, he’s been very good for our hockey club and the organization. He’s been very supportive of me and the players. I am excited about moving forward with him.”
While the Penguins locked up their core and have many familiar faces back on the ice this season, they won’t look exactly the same. Shero and his staff were busy this summer filling holes in the team’s lineup that brought Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Eric Godard, Matt Cooke and others to the organization.
“It’s exciting. With the salary cap era, it’s no different than what we’ve seen in the NFL with the number of players that change teams every year,” Shero said. “You’re always curious to see how your new players are going to do as well as those around the league and how they will fit in. Last year, a Petr Sykora came in and fit in well for us and we’re hoping the same thing will work out with the number of guys we signed this year. I think, from talking to them so far, these new guys are excited to be here. They see the team that we have and the success that we had last year; they see the support of the city with all the sellouts and I think that means a lot to them to play in a hockey city. So, we’re looking for some good things from them this year.”
Last season, the Penguins faced tremendous expectations from various media outlets around the NHL even though the group hadn’t won a playoff round. This year, they know many expect more of the same from the team. However, Shero cautions that the organization can’t afford to get caught looking ahead to the future.
“I think we’re in a better position to handle the expectations now. When you look back to last year, we came off a five-game playoff series in which we lost to Ottawa and people all over were saying we’d go to the Stanley Cup Final and all those things,” he said. “From our standpoint, I know our focus is going to be on having a good training camp. You have to lay the foundation every year for your hockey team. You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. As I say all the time here with our team, we have some top-end talent and we know that. But, the foundation of this hockey team with this top-end talent is hard work and passion. We need to establish that early on in our camp. We really want to get off to a better start than we have over the last couple of years as well. We’ve always seemed to catch our stride in the middle of end of the year the last couple of seasons, but we can’t look too far ahead of ourselves here and we have to establish our identity early on again and we have to do that every year.”