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Crosby Show, Year 2: Young Penguins look to finally move up in standings

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Crosby Show, Year 2: Young Penguins look to finally move up in standings

The Canadian Press
By:

The Penguins will have three teenagers on their roster - Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Kristopher Letang - when they open up Thursday night against Philadelphia. It is an almost unheard of influx of youth for a team in one of the major pro sports.

And the Penguins' biggest addition, Russian star Evgeni Malkin, missed by only two months of being the fourth teen.

Staal, this year's first-round draft pick, and Letang, a high-scoring defenceman, may not stay long because the clock starts ticking on their NHL free agency eligibility if they play more than nine games. That they are around at all indicates how the Penguins feel about their futures.

Six other players, including starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and top-line forward Colby Armstrong are 24 or younger. Veterans such as Mark Recchi (38), John LeClair (37) and Sergei Gonchar (32) are back, Recchi after playing briefly for Carolina during its Stanley Cup run, but they will have far more younger faces around them than before.

"It's going to be exciting around here for the next 10 to 15 years," owner Mario Lemieux said.

The Penguins never saw anything like this during Craig Patrick's nearly 17-year run as general manager, as he preferred high-scoring and mostly veteran teams. The move to youth illustrates the altered thinking - and the numerous changes made - since Ray Shero was hired as only the second Penguins GM since the 1980s.

"Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin -we have some wonderful assets to build around here that other teams don't have," Shero said. "We're going to give them the support and patience they are going to need in order to get winning hockey back in Pittsburgh again."

There were no blockbuster additions, besides the drafting of Staal as the No. 2 overall pick and the signing of Malkin, who sneaked away from his Russian team in August to fly to North America and start his NHL career.

However, Shero shook up a Penguins establishment that's been long in place, ousting fixtures such as former coach and scout Rick Kehoe. Longtime scouting director Greg Malone took a lesser position with Phoenix. Even the training room and equipment staffs underwent a makeover.

The implied reason for the changes is obvious: lethargy and complacency set in when so many people are in the same jobs for year after year.

One change that Shero didn't make was the coach - team president Ken Sawyer told Shero that Michel Therrien needed to remain in place. Therrien coached only two-thirds of last season after taking over from Eddie Olczyk and Sawyer felt there was enough improvement to bring him back.

Most GMs want their own coach in place, so Therrien's job status will be closely watched if the Penguins get off to a slow start - a year ago, they lost their first nine and never contended after that.

Crosby played against Malkin in world-level championships, and can't wait to see how much of a difference he can make once he recovers from his dislocated shoulder. Crosby was impressed that Malkin was so set on playing in the NHL that he left his family in Russia to travel secretly to the United States.

"To take those risks to get here, it shows you that he wants to be here," Crosby said. "I think he is going to want it bad and will want to play well and will expect a lot out of himself."

Kind of like Crosby of a year ago. No player in league history as young as Crosby had scored 100 points - he finished with 102 - and the 19-year-old has looked faster and stronger in training camp than he did a year ago.

"There are going to be expectations, but I've dealt with those my whole life," said Crosby, who could threaten to win a scoring title before he turns 20. "To be honest, I don't think about the outside expectations."

There probably isn't enough top-to-bottom talent or depth for the Penguins to make mad dash up the standings immediately. But Shero added some role players who figure to be a big upgrade from what the Penguins had a season ago: centre Dominic Moore (Rangers), forward Nils Ekman (San Jose), left wing Jarkko Ruutu (Vancouver) and defenceman Mark Eaton, who blocked 170 shots in 69 games for Nashville.

However, there is a lot of improvement to make. The Penguins allowed a league-high 316 goals last season, and patching a leaky defence in one season without signing star-calibre players could prove difficult.

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Crosby Show, Year 2: Young Penguins look to finally move up in standings