Q: Is there any merit to the idea that the Penguins are suffering under the pressure of inflated expectations? I understand that hockey is a business and the players can't just go out and play pond hockey, but honestly, all of the head-scratching about the Pens' uneven start signals to me that maybe everyone needs to take a step back and breathe, deeply.
Sherry Proctor-Oonk, Solana Beach, Calif.
MOLINARI: While it might seem reasonable to blame the Penguins' lackluster start, at least in part, on outside influences, that really isn't a viable excuse or explanation. Think of it this way: If not knowing where the franchise would be based this winter didn't prevent them from being spectacularly successful last season, should having people outside the organization hold unrealistic hopes for them in 2007-08 really cause that much of a disruption now?
Of course, it's possible that putting up 105 points in 2006-07 caused some of the players to believe they are closer to being serious Stanley Cup contenders than they really are, but it also is safe to assume that the people making personnel decisions have a more realistic view of the team. They recognize that there still are some significant holes in the depth chart, and that most of this club's key players are quite young.
That said, it probably would be good for the sake of some fans' mental well-being if they would try to take a more objective look at this team, and thus have a more realistic perspective on what it can accomplish now. There's no question its top-end talent is as good as any in the league, but the NHL's elite clubs have much better depth and balance. It's perfectly reasonable to expect the Penguins to be back into the playoffs again next spring and, if they're not, someone should have to answer for it, and their core of exceptional players will make them scary for any team facing them in a best-of-seven.
In reality, though, unless the Penguins make some bold, sweeping moves to alter their lineup -- and that isn't likely, because of the salary-cap implications that bringing in a few impact players almost certainly would have -- chances are that they still are a couple of years away from being a true championship-caliber team.
Q: All things considered, what do you think this team, as presently constructed, needs?
MOLINARI: Continued patience by management might be the most important thing the Penguins could get, at least in terms of their long-range development. (Admittedly, not a popular idea with some fans, for whom even instant gratification isn't quick enough.) While people not in a position to actually make decisions that affect the on-ice product sometimes are inclined to call for moves because on events in a relatively brief period of time -- a week-long losing streak, for example -- it's critical that general manager Ray Shero and his staff not deviate from their blueprint for constructing a championship-caliber team unless they detect a significant flaw in that plan.
Clearly, the Penguins could benefit from upgrades at several positions; an infusion of speed would help, as would a goal-scoring winger or two and a reliable defenseman with a physical edge to his game. The catch is, not only does a GM seeking to improve his roster have to find players who can fill the roles in question, but he must do it within the limitations imposed by his budget and the NHL's salary cap.
Particularly in the case of the Penguins, it's critical to not commit too much money for coming seasons. Shero will be looking to re-sign goalie Marc-Andre Fleury this summer, and will be allowed to negotiate extensions for Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal then, too. Having cap space to accommodate those deals, and possibly pursue free agents, obviously will be important.
Q: How long does a partial power play have to exist for it to count as a power-play opportunity?
Mac Jackson, Lakeville, Conn.
MOLINARI: A single second will do it. For statistical purposes, a man-advantage that lasts one second is the same as one that runs a full two minutes.