Comrie rewards a calculated risk for Penguins

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Mike Comrie would not be the first hockey player to dazzle in September, then disappear before the leaves do.

Drive-thru windows and assembly lines across North America are well-stocked with guys who looked great during a training camp, but did not perform when games began to count.

So it is prudent to warn that it is a bit early to proclaim Comrie, signed as a free agent Sept. 3, to be part of the solution to the problem of fleshing out the Penguins' top two lines with players capable of consistently putting up points.

It is, however, tempting to pencil Comrie in for one of those spots. Not only because of his work during the preseason -- including an assist on an Evgeni Malkin goal in the 4-1 exhibition victory Tuesday night against Chicago at Consol Energy Center -- but because of his history.

Comrie, 30, has 167 goals and 192 assists in 568 NHL games, most of which were spent with teams where the supporting cast was, to be charitable, suspect. Consider that he has appeared in just 32 playoff games, 20 of those during Ottawa's run to the Stanley Cup final in 2007.

He put up 13 goals and eight assists in 43 games with Edmonton in 2009-10, despite being forced to sit out 30 because of mononucleosis. Comrie's most-productive season was 2001-02, when he had 33 goals and 27 assists for the Oilers, his hometown team; he matched that point total four years later in Phoenix.

Adding Comrie to his personnel mix was a low-risk, potentially high-reward move by general manager Ray Shero. Signing him cost just $500,000, and Comrie might well help to address a need that has dogged the Penguins for several winters.

"He's been given some good opportunities to play with [Malkin], and he's certainly done well," coach Dan Bylsma said. "When you start to put together these 12 forwards, things will sometimes look a little bit different, but he's done real well with the opportunity.

"He's proven that he can think the game at a level that's right up there with [accomplished] offensive players."

Because Comrie broke into the NHL a decade ago, there are not many mysteries about his game. Even so, watching him on a daily basis has given Bylsma some insights he did not possess before.

"Maybe I didn't quite know the offensive intelligence," he said. "Clearly, his points-per-game and success indicate that he can put up points, but ... the hockey IQ -- offensively, reading plays, attacking and reading off his linemates --is something you can talk about, but when you see it every day, you get a better understanding of it."

Comrie seems highly motivated -- he said he turned down more lucrative offers to come here because he wanted to play for a contender -- and has been assertive and opportunistic, qualities that will serve him well if he holds a spot on one of the top two lines.

He has spent most of camp centering a line for Malkin -- that is the role Jordan Staal was to assume before a stubborn foot infection forced him to sit out the preseason -- but is versatile enough to shift to the wing if the need arises.

"I don't think it really matters," Comrie said. "I'm in a position where I can play anywhere, if it makes the team better. That was my goal when I came here.

"The last couple of years, I've probably played more wing, but I feel comfortable in the middle. Depending on the game situation, I could move around during the game as well."

He also insisted that he does not have a preference for playing center with Malkin or wing with Sidney Crosby.

"Not just to be politically correct, but there are a lot of great hockey players here and those two obviously are the elite of the league," he said. "Anybody who gets the opportunity to play there has to get open for them."

That's an opportunity Comrie did not figure to get for much of the summer because he qualified for free agency more than a month before registering more than a faint blip on the Penguins' radar.

That was "sometime in August," Shero said. And even then, the Penguins did not act immediately.

"We were looking at different options to add to our depth," Shero said. "We talked about a few other players as well. It came back to Mike. We felt the risk was certainly worth the chance."

And Comrie has not given them any reason to regret their decision.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at . Dave Molinari: . First Published September 29, 2010 4:00 AM


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