Collier: Penguins' talent level is peerless

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The Penguins, the Boston Bruins, and all of their various professional accomplices, media observers, and frothing fans from here to the rocky shores of New England remained immersed in hockey talk Friday, but at least there was mounting atmospheric evidence that a massive arctic ice shelf of inactivity was about to break away.

There were Penguins on the ice Uptown, filling an all-but-empty building with the shhshhing sounds of skate blades on a frozen surface, stopping for silences pierced only by a modulated coaching voice describing the next chunk of practice.

There were Bruins with confirmed reservations at an upscale Pittsburgh hotel.

It was almost as if we were very close to seeing actual hockey again, and rumors persisted that Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final will occur on this very night.

"There's been a lot of talking," said Jarome Iginla, his easy smile again buttressing an astounding patience with still another round of questions about why he turned into a Penguin instead of a Bruin after it became clear he would no longer be a Flame.

Flames on ice never made sense anyway, being mutually exclusive by nature, but curiously that wasn't part of his explanation.

Game 1 won't end the hockey talk, certainly, but it will at least change the backdrop and jump-start a competitive narrative about what just happened and what will happen next. No one can truly know what's to unfold when the NHL finally sanctions an actual puck drop a couple of minutes after 8 p.m., but you can truly know this:

The Penguins that will come over the boards tonight, line after line, shift after shift, defensive tandem after defensive tandem, everyone from the goalies on out, represent the most-talented local hockey team ever.

That's right; I said it.

"I think it's our deepest team," general manager Ray Shero said without hesitation when I broached the topic Friday. "In '09, we won a Stanley Cup championship, so that's our best team.

"Right now."

See this is why these discussions generally go nowhere, because somebody had to go around winning Stanley Cups at some point, and since that's the general purpose and ultimate goal of NHL teams, smart personnel executives are reflexively loathe to identify greatness in a team until there is some iconic validation.

That's not to say anyone else won't do it.

Part of Pittsburgh's sports orthodoxy is that the Cup-less 1992-93 Penguins were the best Penguins to stalk a rink, just as there's a certain hagiology surrounding the 1976 Steelers, who knew not a Super Bowl, even in the runner-up's role.

The truth is that both are presumptions.

These 2013 Penguins might not win another game, but it won't be because Shero didn't give them every conceivable chance to win 16 times this postseason, didn't bring to them through every method available to him (and to Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle) talent and depth at every spot on the ice. Yet Shero didn't answer a question at a podium in these playoffs until Friday and didn't allow that he felt any differently about his best team -- or, I'm sorry, his deepest team -- than he did about his first.

"I don't think I feel any closer to this team vs. the team I inherited from [then general manager] Craig Patrick in '06-07 that lost in five games to Ottawa, who went to the Finals," he said. "I think as a manager you somewhat keep your distance from some of the players, and that's the way it has to be, that relationship, but I think I have a good relationship with the players. I think there's a respect factor there that I have for them and the job they have to do.

"Part of being the manager is spending time with your coaches and enjoying that, too, so every team -- I've been here seven years -- every team I've been a part of has been a reminder that this is a great job to have."

Shero has been a front-office catalyst in the NHL for two decades, so he's more aware than most that the elation he's feeling over putting together a team that can play into June is directly proportionate to the sting he'll feel if it doesn't play and win for the balance of this month.

But for all that, Shero remains prominent among the people who realize there is more to hockey than deciding which team will skate joyously with a 34-pound silver chalice.

"Last year was very disappointing," he said about a 30-goals-against first-round gobsmacking from the team his father used to coach.

"But we had a great group of guys last year. Some of those guys aren't here. But I really appreciate their efforts, their friendships and families.

"There's only one team that's going to win, but you try to take something good from every team, all the relationships, and you try to keep those. I just got an email from Jarkko Ruutu."

One of Shero's first free-agent signings for those '06-07 Penguins, Ruutu is still playing in Finland.

"He's got a year left on his contract," Shero laughed.

I guess Jarkko wanted to talk some Penguins-Bruins. I doubt Shero had the heart to tell him it has been talked to death.

mobilehome - penguins - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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