Extreme Makeover Penguins Edition NHL Preview '06-'07

It's more about what fans don't see

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Andy Hilbert was part of the Penguins' No. 1 line in their final game of the 2005-06 season.

Sebastien Caron got the start in the net that night. Eric Boguniecki assisted on their final goal.

All played significant roles in a 5-3 loss at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

None will be around when the Penguins open the regular season Thursday against Philadelphia.

And they're not the only ones who'll be missing. Four other men who wore a Penguins sweater back on April 18 have moved on. Remember Konstantin Koltsov? How about Tomas Surovy? Or Jani Rita and Niklas Nordgren?

They've found work elsewhere, and their places have been taken by guys such as Evgeni Malkin and Nils Ekman. Mark Eaton and Jarkko Ruutu. Dominic Moore and Mark Recchi.

Considering that the Penguins finished with the second-worst record in the NHL and haven't reached the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2001, that kind of turnover was predictable. Maybe even modest.

"It's fairly normal, what they did in the offseason," right winger Colby Armstrong said.

But that was just on the ice. What the Penguins have done off it qualifies as the most seismic upheaval in franchise history.

It has touched virtually every aspect of the franchise's hockey operation, profoundly altering the way the Penguins go about the day-to-day business of being an NHL club.

Laying a foundation

The most significant move the Penguins made during the offseason -- hiring Ray Shero to replace Craig Patrick as general manager -- led directly, though not immediately, to the avalanche of changes that followed.

While there undoubtedly would have been some player moves even if a new GM hadn't been hired, the epic makeover of the past few months would not have happened if Patrick had remained in charge. Mostly because Patrick, the Penguins' GM from December 1989 until late April, was responsible for most of the things Shero has changed.

There had been a time when he was on, if not atop, every list of the game's finest GMs, but Patrick's reputation lost its luster in recent years. Last season, even his most loyal supporters began to whisper that he had gotten stale.

By spring, it seemed inevitable that Patrick would be -- had to be -- replaced. Nonetheless, the man who succeeded him is reluctant to suggest that anything he has done indicates a failing by his predecessor.

"I hate that it reflects back on Craig or other people, which I'm kind of reluctant to have happen," Shero said.

Actually, no overt criticism is necessary, because the scope of the overhaul Shero has overseen in his four-plus months on the job says it all.

He has brought in a new assistant GM and a second assistant coach, hired a new head amateur scout and replaced several members of the scouting staff, created a director of team services position and radically altered the makeup of the equipment and medical staffs.

This hasn't been about tinkering or fine-tuning; Shero gutted the operation and started over. And there's been more to it than hirings and firings; Shero did progressive things like bring a power-skating instructor to training camp and order a team-building trip to the U.S. Military Academy.

"This is just my feeling about getting this job, and running the organization I would like to run," he said. "Over the course of time, I really do believe that if you take the proper steps, you lay a foundation. You need the foundation.

"The foundation is off the ice, as well, whether it's the culture of your team, whether it's the professionalism, whether it's the staff members that I'm comfortable with ... I have to have a strong group off the ice and great atmosphere off the ice.

"If you have a good staff, they're going to help you make good decisions, and that gives you [the ability] to have a good on-ice product. That's part of the plan or the vision that you can have.

"I think it starts off the ice. It doesn't happen overnight, but it's a part of what I want to try to accomplish."

Comfort zone

The Penguins were on the road a lot the past two weeks. But even though they didn't spend much time at home, there were touches in every rink designed to make them feel as if they were.

Team logos were affixed to doors everywhere they practiced or played, and engraved nameplates -- not numbers scrawled on a strip of white tape with a permanent marker -- for each player were affixed above locker-room stalls. Minor things, to be sure, but evidence of an attention to detail rarely associated with this organization.

Credit for that belongs to Dana Heinze, who replaced Steve Latin -- a guy he admittedly idolized -- as equipment manager this summer. Heinze, a Johnstown area native, came here after six seasons with Tampa Bay. And brought a fresh perspective on the care and feeding of players.

"When I started in 1988 in the East Coast Hockey League, [then-Johnstown Chiefs coach] Steve Carlson never hesitated to remind me that we were the lowest form of pro hockey in the world," he said. "Even then, I wanted to treat the players like they were in the National Hockey League.

"I started packing [equipment] bags for our players, loading the bus [instead of having the players do it]. When we'd go on the road, the players would get dropped off at a hotel and I would take the gear to the rink and set it up [because] that's how they did it in the NHL.

"I want to do everything possible for these guys, so that all they have to worry about is coming in, putting their hockey laundry on, get in their uniforms and not worry about any issues in the dressing room. Go on the ice and play."

Heinze was a driving force behind a well-received refurbishment of the Penguins' locker room and nearby areas at Mellon Arena.

The lighting everywhere is brighter, the room where players change into and out of their equipment less cluttered. A kitchenette stocked with bagels and cereal and fruit was added to the players' lounge, where the centerpiece is a new 52-inch flat-screen TV.

Walls throughout the locker room and adjacent team offices have been painted in the team's colors, large photos of current team members adorn the walls and a well-lighted, well-stocked area for players to work on their sticks has been set up between the locker room and the runway that leads to the ice.

Few, if any, of those changes will be apparent to the public, but all could help to make at least a little difference in how the Penguins perform. Not as much as signing an A-list free agent such as Zdeno Chara or Patrik Elias would have, certainly, but there's no downside to making the locker room and environs more player-friendly.

"Dana and [new trainer Chris Stewart] have done an unreal job," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "They've made it real comfortable around here. We come in, and we really want to be here, because we know that anything we need is going to get done. It makes a big difference.

"Last year was a struggle and when you come in and there are new, positive changes, it just makes everyone feel better. As much as it might not make sense to a lot of people, the more comfortable you are around the locker room and how much you enjoy being there makes a big difference in your game. You can just worry about playing your game."

Mr. Fix It

Frank Buonomo is the Penguins' director of team services.

That's what they call him, probably because a comprehensive listing of his duties wouldn't begin to fit on a business card. Or the side of a refrigerator box.

He is the point man for virtually every off-ice problem, schedules and coordinates every facet of the Penguins' travel and deals with all the snafus associated with doing business in two countries.

Misplace a passport? Tell Frank. Have a visa problem? Put Frank on the case. Need game tickets on short notice, a hotel room for your parents or a flight for your wife? Frank's the guy for all that, too.

"Frank Buonomo has been a great addition," Shero said.

It's a full-time job -- numerically, 24/7 would just about cover it -- but this is the first time the Penguins have had an employee dedicated to handling it. In previous years, the duties were delegated to a variety of people, from the GM's secretary to the conditioning coach to the media-relations director.

Predictably, more than a few loose ends didn't get tied up. Now, Buonomo's mandate is to address those problems, if he can't prevent them in the first place.

That approach is a revelation to long-time members of the organization. Especially ones such as forward Ryan Malone, who has never played elsewhere and literally grew up around the Penguins, for whom his father was a player and scout.

He has genuine fondness and respect for a lot of people no longer with the organization, but also an appreciation for the way it has evolved since the end of last season.

"That's all I knew, the old way," Malone said. "The way things are handled a different way is kind of refreshing."

Passion and work ethic

All the Penguins have done in the past few months -- and perhaps all they will do for years to come -- can be traced to Shero.

He learned about building a solid organization and competitive team while working in Ottawa and Nashville and, in the process, earned a reputation as one of the most promising young executives in the game.

"It's a great opportunity, to work with Ray," said Chuck Fletcher, who left Anaheim to serve as Shero's assistant. "When you look at Ray, you look at his passion. You look at his work ethic, and you look at his experience at helping a couple of organizations climb from the bottom to the top.

"The thing that probably attracted me to this position was his trust and his confidence in people. There are a lot of insecure people in our business. To find somebody who's willing to hire good people and allow them to do their job is a very appealing quality in a manager.

"He will put together a very good organization here, and that's the first step toward getting back to where we want to get."

Danile Marsula, Post-Gazette
Some of the fresh faces of the new Penguins, clockwise from top: GM Ray Shero, Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin.
Click illustration for larger image.


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Keith Srakocic, Associated Press
Buffalo's Tomas Vanek tries to sneak the puck past Penguins' goalie Jocelyn Thibault in the first period of their exhibition game Friday night at Mellon Arena. The Sabres scored in overtime to pull out a 4-3 win in the Penguins' final home preseason game.
Click photo for larger image.

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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