Q: Since there's a pretty good chance the Pens will end up with both the Hart and Calder winners this year, a few questions arise: Have both winners ever come from the same team? Has the Hart winner ever been younger than the Calder winner?
Dave, New York
MOLINARI: If Sidney Crosby earns the Hart and Evgeni Malkin the Calder, it will be the fourth time in NHL history -- and the first since the league expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967 -- that a single club has produced the winner of both trophies.
In 1943-44, Babe Pratt of Toronto was named MVP and teammate Gus Bodnar was selected the top rookie. Montreal's Jacques Plante got the Hart for 1962-63, when Bobby Rousseau of the Canadiens received the Calder and two seasons later, Montreal center Jean Beliveau was the NHL's top player and defenseman Jacques Laperriere was the rookie of the year.
There have been several instances in which the MVP was younger than the Calder recipient, a scenario that will play out again if Crosby, 19, and Malkin, 20, get those awards. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it happened most recently in 1989-90, when 29-year-old Mark Messier got the Hart and Sergei Makarov, 31, was the top rookie. Under guidelines subsequently put in place by the league, Makarov would be too old to earn the Calder.
Q: I am intrigued by the idea of the Pens bringing up Kristopher Letang if he becomes available upon the conclusion of his junior playoffs. Having him on the second power-play unit would give the Pens two legitimate units, a plus in the playoffs, but wouldn't that mess up his contract status? I though we sent him back to junior in October to avoid the mess of having Malkin, Jordan Staal and Letang eligible for free agency at the same time. If we were to bring him to Pittsburgh or even send him to Wilkes-Barre, does that defeat the purpose of sending him back to junior in the first place?
Howard Hewlett, Nogales, Ariz.
MOLINARI: Actually, Letang was returned to his junior team in Val d'Or in late October because there was no guarantee he would receive significant playing time with the Penguins, and management decided -- quite properly -- that his development would be better served by having him play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League than by practicing in the NHL and spending game nights in the press box.
And while Letang shows considerable promise, especially offensively, there's not much reason at this point to believe that he will mature into the kind of big-ticket talent whose earning power will rival that of Malkin or Staal.
That said, playoff games do count against the nine an entry-level player is allowed before the season counts against the three included in his first pro contract. Because Letang appeared in seven games with the Penguins in the weeks following training camp, he can play in no more than two during the postseason unless the team is willing to burn the first year of his deal. If, however, management decides that Letang could have a significant impact on a series, it will not hesitate to use him, regardless of the long-term repercussions of such a move.
Mind you, the whole issue could be moot, because Val d'Or is one of the finest teams in junior hockey this season, and it's far from certain that its playoff run will end before that of the Penguins does.
Q: Is it totally out of the question that the Student Rush program will be retained at the new arena? With games selling out like crazy, there have been few or no opportunities for poor college students to see the game live. Any chance there will be tickets geared toward the younger crowd?
Jennie Luptak, Oakland
MOLINARI: The Student Rush program, under which students are able to purchase any unsold tickets at a discount an hour before gametime, was almost as much of a success as the Penguins' 2006-07 season, spawning imitators in numerous leagues and cities. It's no surprise, then, that team officials believe it will exist, in some form, for years to come.
It is far too early, however, to say what it will look like in two years. That's an issue the Penguins' front office will take up in about, oh, two years. For now, the priorities are preparing for their first playoff appearance in six years -- there are a lot of details associated with staging a playoff game that the Penguins haven't had to worry about since 2001 -- and trying to sell season-ticket packages for 2007-08. The 2009-10 season isn't even a blip on their long-range radar at the moment.
The demand for Penguins tickets now might be as high as it ever has been since the team entered the league -- the team record for sellouts in a season is 34, and 22 of 82 home dates during their two Stanley Cup seasons draw less-than-capacity crowds -- but that doesn't automatically guarantee that tickets will be impossible to find in coming winters.
What's more, as evidenced by the Penguins' just-concluded run of seasons that did not include a playoff appearance, it is folly for any team -- even with a future as promising as that of the Penguins -- to assume that success will be perpetual, and that the demand for seats will be high forever.
That is part of the beauty of the Student Rush program, because it gets a generation of fans into the habit of attending games. For that reason alone -- never mind the spike in enthusiasm that comes from having younger fans in the building -- it will be in the Penguins' interest to set aside at least a section of seats for a Student Rush-style program when they move into their new home.
Q: It's not over yet, but in your opinion, where does this Penguins team rank among the all-time Penguins squads in terms of talent and chemistry?
Bob King, Benicia, Calif.
MOLINARI: Its triple-digit point total this season notwithstanding, this team barely is out of the embryonic stage in its development, so it's a little early to say just where it ranks alongside the most talented clubs -- primarily, those from the very late 1980s through the early- to mid-1990s -- in Penguins history. If the team's core remains intact, however, and the individuals who comprise it progress to their widely perceived potential, however, this could go down as the franchise's most talented club.
If, by chemistry, you mean the bond that exists between the players on this season's team, this might be the tightest bunch ever to wear the sweater. Even though the players come from all over the world and range in age from 18 to 40, there appears to be no cliques, no groups that operate in their own little circle at the exclusion of everyone else.
Some players are closer with certain teammates than others, but that's natural in any work setting. The important thing is that there are no undercurrents of tension or dissension in the locker room, and haven't been since the earliest days of camp. The willingness of every guy on the team to do whatever is needed to succeed -- and to do it as much for his teammates as for himself, or any other reason -- has gone a long way toward creating the atmosphere that has made the Penguins' stunning success this season possible.
Q: With the Penguins' current success and Ray Shero's well-documented (intention) to not make rash moves with this young team, at times I wonder if Craig Patrick had been able to weather the storm for a few more months, he might not look like a hero now. The current team was built through terrible performance, but it was built through the draft. Also, the Sergei Gonchar move looks a lot better now than it did a year ago. Isn't this really Craig Patrick's team?
Steve Leonhardt, Los Angeles
MOLINARI: While Patrick's shelf life as GM of this franchise most certainly had expired -- and probably had a year or so before his contract was not renewed last spring -- there's no question that his fingerprints remain on the team, and will for years to come.
That doesn't mean he deserves praise for assembling what has become the nucleus of this team; he didn't need a scouting staff, let alone a capable one, to make top-two choices like Crosby, Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. The Hockey News draft preview issue would be enough to prepare a team to make those selections (although Patrick deserves, and has received, praise for trading up two spots in the 2003 draft to be able to get Fleury).
What Patrick -- and, more to the point, the scouting staff he put together -- does deserve credit for is finding gems like Maxime Talbot in the middle and later rounds of the draft. Because of quality work by former head scout Greg Malone and his people, the Penguins have a nice collection of promising role players in their system (all of the potential stars already are in the NHL) and figure to add them to the NHL roster over the next few years.
Patrick once was regarded as one of the game's premier GMs, and he came by that reputation honestly. He did not, however, keep up with the way the game evolved off the ice -- there was, for example, no Internet access in the coaches' office before Michel Therrien succeeded Eddie Olczyk -- and the front-office and scouting operations have benefited from the accountability introduced by Shero, just as the on-ice product has from the structure brought in by Therrien.
Q: At this point, is Michel Therrien pretty much a shoo-in for the Jack Adams Award? Not trying to be a homer, it just seems that before the season the Pens were left for dead, as far as the playoffs were concerned. A talented team that was way too young at this point to do anything.
Tim, Tulsa, Okla.
MOLINARI: Therrien is a legitimate contender for the Adams -- maybe the best -- but there is no shortage of qualified candidates this year. (Heck, even Claude Julien, fired as New Jersey's coach a few days ago, figured to show up on quite a few ballots. And perhaps he still will, for that matter.)
Alain Vigneault has done a terrific job in Vancouver -- yes, he has Roberto Luongo, but Therrien has Crosby -- and last season's winner, Lindy Ruff, did some outstanding work leading Buffalo to the best record in the Eastern Conference while coping with injuries to many of his top players.
Randy Carlyle (Anaheim), Barry Trotz (Nashville) and Mike Babcock (Detroit) are worthy candidates, too. Yes, they entered the season with teams expected to be among the best in the Western Conference, but good coaching was at least part of the reason for those predictions, and all did a good job of coaxing quality performances out of their personnel.
Therrien did that -- and then some -- and being voted the Adams by members of the NHL Broadcasters Association would be a fitting recognition of his work, but if he doesn't win, it won't be because voters ignored the only valid candidate for that award.
Q: Have you heard any talk of a Mario Lemieux statue at the new Arena like Roberto Clemente's at PNC Park? It should be done.
Loren Martello, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: The city's new multi-purpose arena still is being designed, so there is nothing firm yet, but all indications are that a Lemieux statue will be included in the plans. No word on whether there also will be one of Ed Rendell.