5 Talking Points: Crosby, Malkin, defense, schedule and where new season figures to turn

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Evgeni Malkin works out alone last week as he continues his rehab from a dislocated shoulder.

By Dave Molinari
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

1. The top goal? Allow fewer

Although the Penguins weren't good at much last season, no NHL team was better at giving up goals. Even-strength goals. Power-play goals. Short-handed goals. Even empty-net goals.

Figure out a way a team can be scored on, and it happened to the Penguins. They allowed 316 goals, an average of 3.85 per game.

The encouraging thing for the Penguins is that the structure coach Michel Therrien introduced after replacing Eddie Olczyk last season clearly improved their team defense, even though it wasn't reflected in their record. After having a training camp to drill his players on the details of his system, Therrien can reasonably hold them accountable for how well they execute it. (Just as general manager Ray Shero can hold Therrien accountable for it.)

The Penguins' penalty-killing was the second-worst in the NHL, with an efficiency rate 78.8 percent. Indeed, 113 of the goals they gave up -- more than 35 percent -- occurred when they were down a man or two. Grafting guys such as Dominic Moore and Mark Eaton onto the depth chart should upgrade the penalty-killing and, as a result, lower the goals-against.

Goaltending is a major piece of the defensive equation. If the five skaters in front of him do their jobs well but the goaltender -- whether it's Marc-Andre Fleury, Jocelyn Thibault, Dany Sabourin or Georges Vezina -- doesn't, the goal judges are going to go home after games with tired fingers. And the Penguins are going to go home with a lot of losses.

2. Ready ... set ... gone

Mathematically, the Penguins weren't eliminated from playoff contention until relatively late last season. For practical purposes, though, they were history by Halloween.

They were 0-4-5 in the first nine games and, by the time they rallied for a 7-5 victory against Atlanta Oct. 27, they weren't playing for much more than position in the draft lottery.

On some levels, the early season schedule is conducive to a good start -- the Penguins play six of their first eight games at home, and play on consecutive nights only once in the first month of the season. But on another, it could be setting them up for early problems. Of their first nine games, seven are against teams that qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs last season.

3. What role will Malkin shoulder?

Russian rookie Evgeni Malkin got just over a period of work in the preseason before his left shoulder was dislocated in a collision with teammate John LeClair. But that was enough time to show why he was regarded as the best player in the world outside of the NHL last season.

Even though his training camp was abbreviated, Malkin showed enough to remove any doubts about his game or how he will adapt to North American hockey. The people who were expecting to put him on top of their Calder Trophy ballots haven't been given much reason to change their minds.

There are a couple of concerns about him, though. The first is whether -- and how -- the shoulder injury will affect him, and how vulnerable he will be to hurting it again when he resumes playing. Even a world-class talent isn't going to do much with one arm, and opponents are sure to go after Malkin's shoulder at every opportunity, especially the first few weeks after he rejoins the lineup.

There also is the matter of adjusting to life off the ice. Most evidence is that Malkin actually understands more English than he acknowledges, and being familiar with the language will help him settle in. His parents apparently plan to come here for an extended visit, and having family around should give Malkin some peace of mind. Especially after the unpleasant circumstances surrounding his departure from his hometown team in the Russian Super League.

4. Coming back for seconds

The Penguins are a work-in-progress. But while there is a new architect, Shero, handling the design, the basic philosophy of building through the draft doesn't figure to change.

Most of the franchise's core players are young and several -- guys such as Sidney Crosby, Ryan Whitney, Colby Armstrong and Marc-Andre Fleury -- are heading into just their second full seasons in the NHL. (Whitney and Armstrong actually don't have that much experience.)

If any or all suffer through a sophomore jinx, it could be another long, unpleasant winter. If all manage to build on their rookie seasons, the Penguins' process of evolving into a contender could be accelerated.

5. The art of the draw

The Penguins' ability to win faceoffs was a major concern going into last season, and that proved to be one of the few predictions about them that came true. They finished 2005-06 winning well less than half of their faceoffs to rank among the worst teams in the league in yet another category.

That was an important flaw. And it likely magnified others, since it's a whole lot easier for opponents to exploit defensive liabilities when they have possession of the puck.

Crosby, who controlled just 45.5 percent of his draws in 2005-06, has focused on improving his faceoffs, and Moore will help. Malkin is reputed to be good on faceoffs, too, although he didn't handle enough in the preseason to give an accurate read on how he might do during the early stages of his NHL career.


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