Q: I hear comparisons between today's Penguins and the Penguins from (this spring), but how do you think this team compares to the Penguins (of summer, 2007)? It seems we are in a better position now than a year ago, given the playoff experience we have, and the smaller margin of improvement still needed.
Rich, Seven Fields
MOLINARI: The experience the Penguins gained during the stretch drive and playoffs certainly should work to their benefit -- especially in the case of guys such as goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who proved he could produce in high-stakes situations -- and the possibility of having Sidney Crosby healthy for an entire season is an obvious plus.
Still, the Penguins lost two top-six wingers, Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone, via free agency, and replaced them with guys like Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko who almost certainly will be downgrades. What's more, the departure of wingers such as Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque, Gary Roberts and Malone means the Penguins have lost significant grit and toughness, two elements that made playing against them an unpleasant experience for a lot of opponents. Adding Eric Godard and Matt Cooke were steps toward addressing that issue, but it won't be a shock if, over the course of the season, general manager Ray Shero looks into bringing in another agitator.
There are a couple of other variables that could prove to be significant problems. The 2007-08 Penguins were an exceptionally close group -- a willingness to sweat and sacrifice for teammates played a meaningful role in their success -- but chemistry is altered by the inevitable additions and deletions of the offseason. Whether the camaraderie of last season can be matched is impossible to predict at this point.
Starting the season, and perhaps playing almost half of it, without Ryan Whitney while he recovers from foot surgery creates some questions, too. Whitney is coming off a disappointing season (albeit one in which his generally lackluster performance is now much easier to understand) but still ranks among the better offensive defensemen in the game. However, the Penguins have reasonably good depth on the blue line and if Alex Goligoski can step up to the NHL and fill a significant role, being without Whitney for an extended period won't necessarily be a lethal blow to their chances of success during the regular season.
Q: Can you please explain the double-minor rule for high-sticking? Is it just a severity judgment by the referee?
Colin McWhertor, Grand Rapids, Mich.
MOLINARI: It really is up to the ref's discretion. Rule 60.3 reads, "When a player or goalkeeper carries or holds any part of his stick above the shoulders of the opponent so that injury results, the referee shall assess a double-minor for all contact that causes an injury, whether accidental or careless, in the opinion of the referee." By the way, while drawing blood is a sure-fire way to super-size one's high-sticking punishment, there is nothing in the rulebook that obliges a referee to assess more than a conventional minor when that happens.
Q: Isn't it ironic that the salary cap is now a hindrance to the Penguins' future success, while only three years ago it was considered a necessity for the team to survive? This demonstrates how far this franchise has come in a very, very short time.
Paul Bodziach, McCandless
MOLINARI: There is a touch of irony in there, to be sure, but also might be that the league officials who insisted that the league's labor deal include a salary cap recognized that it also could contribute to parity, just as the entry-draft system the Penguins exploited to assemble a competitive team does.
In theory -- and perhaps Detroit is the exception that proves the rule -- when a team assembles the kind of talent required to challenge for a championship, its payroll rises to a level that makes it all but impossible to keep that group intact. As a result, some valuable contributors (Ryan Malone, anyone?) have to be allowed to depart, thus affording other clubs an opportunity to upgrade their roster by signing those players.
Because teams can't hoard top-quality talent anymore, even the most downtrodden franchises can genuinely believe that if they draft and develop talent well, they have a legitimate opportunity to win a Stanley Cup someday.