Are the Pens a better overall team right now than they were last year going into the final?

Penguins Q&A with Dave Molinari

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Question: Is it crazy to suggest that the Pens are a better overall team right now than they were last year going into the final? Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal are all a little more experienced and the supporting cast appears to be performing at a higher level. That seems especially true of the defensemen. There usually is more help around the net for Fleury than last year and penalty-killing seems improved. Also the third- and fourth-line guys seem do be doing better as well. If Petr Sykora can't even get on the ice, that says something about the way the team is playing.

Jeff Patton, Bentonville, Ark.

MOLINARI: How most fans feel about the issues you raise probably will be shaped in large part by how Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final played out at Joe Louis Arena last night. (It's still hours away as this is being written.) If the Penguins evened the series heading into Game 2 at Mellon Arena tomorrow night, most Penguins partisans likely will embrace the idea that this team is superior to the one from last year; if the Red Wings won and have a 2-0 lead, giving the Penguins the daunting challenge of trying to defeat the defending champions four times in five games, that sentiment might not be nearly so widespread.

The thinking here is that, on paper, the Penguins' personnel is not the equal of the group from a year ago. Bill Guerin, strong as he's been since joining the Penguins at the trade deadline, is not Marian Hossa. Chris Kunitz has not been the force that Ryan Malone was. Ryan Whitney really hasn't been replaced.

However, this team might well be better than the 2007-08 edition, mostly because of the experience the young players you mentioned, and others, have acquired during the past 12 months. They've been through a Cup final, some adversity that led to a coaching change, and a surge that carried them all the way back to the championship round.

That explains why you never saw the deer-in-the-headlights look from them during Game 1, when they easily could have been rattled by the two bad goals Fleury allowed in the wake of bounces off the lively boards at Joe Louis, the failure of their power play to generate any meaningful pressure on either of its two chances or Malkin's failure to score on a breakaway early in the second period. They never looked rattled to appeared to lose their focus, and that mental toughness obviously should work to their benefit as the series moves alone.

Finally, for what it's worth, Sykora losing his place in the lineup says more about the way he was playing than it does about the way the Penguins have been. He simply lost his scoring touch during the stretch drive -- whether it was because of an injury, a simple slump or some combination thereof -- and never got it back. Sykora has to score occasionally to justify his presence in the lineupparticularly in his customary top-six role.

Question: Regardless of the outcome of the Stanley Cup final, what do you think the chances are that the Penguins try to sign Marian Hossa over the summer to a long term contract (assuming that Detroit cannot afford to re-sign him)?

Eric Buck, Alexandria, Va.

MOLINARI: Not very good, at all. It's hard to imagine that they'll pursue any of the other big-ticket guys who will be available on the open market, either.

As noted previously in the Q&A, the issue is not any displeasure with Hossa stemming from his decision to leave the Penguins and sign with Detroit last summer, but because of salary-cap concerns.

The Penguins will be able to shed some serious salaries this summer if they don't retain the likes of Guerin Petr Sykora, Miroslav Satan, Hl Gill and Ruslan Fedotenko, among others -- although they likely will be interested in holding onto at least a few of those guys -- but with the cap ceiling expected to flat-line next season and drop significantly for 2010-11, they don't figure to be making any big-money, long-term commitments.

The Penguins already have $26.4 million in salary-cap hits tied up Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Staal for the next four years, so it seems logical that their focus will be on assembling the best possible supporting cast, not in bringing in another high-profile forward.


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