Q: Why did the Penguin management use No. 1 picks to draft three big scorers, but not acquire good, strong, young defensemen to back them up and help the goalie? It's unfathomable that they could be so stupid.
Joe, Youngstown, Ohio
MOLINARI: Yes, if only management had had the foresight to take Cam Barker (the first defenseman selected in 2004) instead of Evgeni Malkin and Jack Johnson (the first defenseman to go the next year) instead of Sidney Crosby, the Penguins probably would be undefeated and headed for a major bowl game now. You have to wonder how long the front office will continue to be patient with Malkin and Crosby, waiting for them to actually contribute something.
And when the Penguins took Jordan Staal second overall in 2006, St. Louis had claimed a defenseman, Erik Johnson, with the No. 1 pick, but the second player from that position taken (Ty Wishart) lasted until 16th overall. Think it might have qualified as a bit of a reach to grab him instead of Staal?
Finally, yes, the Penguins landed another skilled forward, Angelo Esposito, with the 20th choice in the June draft. Trouble is, by that time, no fewer than seven defensemen had been taken by other clubs. The defensive prospect rated eighth at his position isn't like to have an impact anytime in the foreseeable future, assuming he ever does.
There are exceptions, of course -- although Kris Letang lasted until the third round in 2005, he broke in with the Penguins last season as a 19-year-old -- but defensemen generally take a number of years to become NHL-ready, so it's far from certain than any defenseman in whom the Penguins would have invested a No. 1 choice during the past few years would be ready to help them at this stage of his career.
The Penguins employ the same philosophy as virtually every other team that competes in a sport that includes a draft -- they go for the highest-rated prospect on their list when it's their turn to select, especially in the early rounds. As the draft moves along, they might make a choice or two to address a projected long-term need, but it's hard to argue against picking the best player on the board, regardless of position.
Look at it this way: If Shero concludes that his team's development will be hopelessly stunted unless he adds another high-impact defenseman to its personnel mix and decides that he must get one at any cost, chances are that he can expect a pretty fair return if he makes it known that he's entertaining offers for Crosby, Malkin or Staal.
Q: I think the Pens should offer Marc-Andre Fleury a long-term contract extension now. Showing him the money would prove that the Pens are behind him and might help his confidence. His price should be lower now and if he does become (an elite goaltender) they'd have him locked up at a cap-friendly figure. If he sputters down the road, I am sure someone would take a chance on a former first overall pick who didn't have a gaudy contract.
David C. Potter, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: That certainly is an interesting notion, especially since you put it forth at a time when so many Penguins fans have fallen into one of two camps: Those who believe Fleury should be benched, horsewhipped, demoted and then traded and those who think he doesn't deserve to get off that easily.
At this point, however, Fleury really has no cause to doubt that he has management's backing. It's easy to argue that coach Michel Therrien hasn't given him enough opportunities lately to play his way out of his slump -- a lot easier than it would be to make the case for playing backup Dany Sabourin so much -- but guys who are struggling have to understand that they're in danger of losing playing time.
So far, the front office has done absolutely nothing to suggest that Fleury has lost its long-term confidence, let alone his place as the goaltender around whom the franchise plans to build. Some observers have questioned the wisdom of Therrien's decision to use the term "fragile" to describe Fleury's mental state of late, but that actually seems to be a pretty accurate assessment. The truth isn't always pleasant.
Fleury had a chance to sign a contract extension during the offseason, but opted to decline the Penguins' offer and take his chances on having a productive season that would lead to a more lucrative deal. There's absolutely nothing wrong with doing that -- frankly, it's good to see a player who believes in himself that way -- but there are risks to that strategy, and playing below expectations is one of them. Mind you, with more than three-quarters of the season remaining, Fleury will have ample opportunity to make his gamble pay off. And if it does, you can reasonably assume the Penguins will delighted to pay him fair market value next summer, even if it's more than signing him now would cost them.