NHL Preview 2007-08 -- After last year, how can the Penguins improve?

Penguins' trust in Sidney Crosby will help guide them through the challenge of trying to be more like the '69 Bruins than the '95 Sharks


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There really is no template for this, no foolproof formula an NHL team can follow when it's looking to vault 40 or 50 points in the standings.

Good goaltending and even better luck are critical. Efficient special teams help a lot. Having a Bobby Orr or Sidney Crosby doesn't hurt, either.


The opener
  • Game: Penguins vs. Carolina Hurricanes in the season opener.
  • When: 7 p.m., Friday.
  • Where: Raleigh, N.C.
  • TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
  • Radio: WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Of note: The Penguins open at home the following night vs. Anaheim.

And at least one other variable must be in place for any team, no matter how deep or skilled, to have a realistic shot at swelling its points total by a few dozen.

As Wayne Thomas, San Jose's assistant general manager, so succinctly put it: "Things have to be pretty dismal to begin with."

The Sharks lived that truth. Their performance in 1993-94, when San Jose made a 58-point leap by going 33-35-16 after being 11-71-2 a year earlier, is the league's gold standard for a 12-month surge.

Compared to that, the 47-point increase the Penguins had last season by virtue of a 47-24-11 record almost seems like a halting half-step, despite being the fourth-largest in NHL history.

That the Penguins would improve should have surprised no one, for their nucleus of young talent is unrivaled and their 22-46-14 showing in 2005-06 left ample room for an upgrade.

Simply making a serious run at a playoff berth for the first time since 2001 would have been a major achievement. Instead, the Penguins surpassed even the most outrageous projections.

"The main point was just to improve, to go in a different direction than we had been in the previous three or four years," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Looking back, it was a lot bigger than most people expected."

Sharks, Nordiques struggled

Gary Roberts reached the NHL during the 1986-87 season, five years before the Sharks showed up and set about giving ineptitude a bad name.

San Jose finished 41 games below .500 in its first season, 60 in its second. If the Sharks had sunk any deeper, they might have come down with the bends.

They routinely lost by what looked like lopsided football scores, and games against San Jose allowed more than a few opponents to cash in personal bonuses.

"We definitely had some big-number games," said Roberts, who was with Calgary at the time.

So did the Penguins, even though they played only two or three games against the Sharks each year. If Mario Lemieux or Kevin Stevens or Rick Tocchet didn't pick up at least five points anytime they faced San Jose, they probably just weren't trying.

"[Those games] were fun," right winger Mark Recchi said, smiling.

Not for the Sharks. There was a faint barnyard smell in the rink when they spent their first few seasons, the fabled Cow Palace, and it never was entirely clear whether that was because livestock sometimes was housed in the building or because someone was offering a full-sensory assessment of the Sharks.

"They struggled," Thomas said. "They really struggled."

So did Quebec during the late 1980s and early 1990s. And while there were no unpleasant odors at Le Colisee, the way the Nordiques performed could be awfully offensive.

It didn't matter that French is the dominant language in that part of the world, because the Nordiques' wretched play required no translation. "Ugh" is a universal expression.

But years of bad hockey yielded a series of high draft choices that netted talents like Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros, the latter of whom was traded to Philadelphia for a staggering package of players and prospects, including Peter Forsberg.

"They got all the draft picks and eventually, things just turned around," Recchi said. "They got the right veterans in and had the right mix of guys. When you do that, you can make a big jump once in a while."

The 2006-07 Penguins were built primarily through the draft, in part because they had the first or second choice four years in a row. They used those selections to claim Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, while filling other needs via trades and free agency.

Of course, Crosby and Fleury -- and quite a few others who played significant roles in 2006-07 -- also had been around the previous season, when the Penguins staggered in 24 games below .500.

But even as they were suffering through the disappointments that came along so often that winter, the Penguins were gaining experience that defenseman Ryan Whitney believes was key to what they achieved last season.

"Sid was a year older," he said. "[Erik] Christensen, myself, [Max] Talbot, [Colby] Armstrong, Orpik. The list went on, of having an extra year in the league. I really don't think a lot of people understand how big that is."

No easy nights ahead

A comparison of many of the key statistical categories for the 2005-06
and 2006-07 Penguins seasons:

2005-06

Category

2006-07

22

Wins

47

58

Points

105

244

Goals

277

15th

Position **

5th

5

Longest points streak-@

16

10

Longest losing streak

5

No

Playoffs

Yes

**-Position in Eastern Conference

@-consecutive games earning point

Taking a 40-plus-point step forward is extremely difficult.

Maintaining -- let alone building on -- that success might be even tougher.

For some teams, the breakthrough year becomes a foundation for greatness. After Boston raised its point total from 44 in 1966-67 to 84 the next season, the Bruins put up 100 the following year en route to winning Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972.

Others clubs, however, revert to something disturbingly close to their previous form. Or at least stumble in that general direction.

San Jose's turnaround season didn't prevent the Sharks from going 19-25-4 in the lockout-shortened season that followed. A year earlier, Quebec had produced a 34-42-8 sequel to its 47-17-10 mark in 1992-93.

"It doesn't secure anything," Thomas said. "In some cases, it might work the other way, that people are now looking for you."

The Penguins certainly should expect that, given their high-profile nucleus of young talent.

"We see them a lot on the highlights, that's for sure," Thomas said. "You really see them as a dangerous, explosive team that's up-and-coming. With a piece here and there, they can be serious contenders."

Because other clubs see those same highlights, they realize how guys like Crosby and Malkin can embarrass them. So while every team is a no-show a few times over the course of a season, the Penguins shouldn't expect many opponents to take the night off.

That some of the teams they face on a regular basis upgraded their lineups considerably in recent months -- the most conspicuous being Philadelphia, against which the Penguins went 8-0 in 2006-07 -- only compounds their challenge.

"We have to realize that we start with zero points and to have the success we had last year, we're going to have to be better this season," Roberts said. "Teams are going to be harder to play against. Our conference is tougher, our division definitely is getting tougher. We're in for no easy nights."

Confident as the Penguins are, they are not all that far removed from the misery that was their 2005-06 season. That should be an antidote to any cockiness virus that appears in the locker room.

"I don't think that's a situation we want to go through again," Crosby said.

One thing the Penguins would like to duplicate is the relatively good health they enjoyed a year ago, when they lost only 216 man-games because of injuries and illness. That included 81 for little-used defenseman Eric Cairns, but still was down 97 from a year earlier.

There is, of course, no assurance they'll be able to hold that number down again. One rut in the ice, one deflected puck can cause a major injury that idles a key player for months.

"Looking back on it, we kind of got lucky," Orpik said. "But sometimes, that's out of your control."

That isn't true about attitudes, and the Penguins insist they are not taking success in 2007-08 for granted.

"It starts with Sid," Whitney said. "He's the captain now, and he's one of those kids who's not going to sit back and be happy. If anyone's going to be pushing for more, it's him. It's tough not to follow his lead."

The Penguins vow they'll do that, despite coach Michel Therrien's criticism of their shabby focus and intensity during exhibition games against Detroit last weekend.

"If guys weren't committed, I'd be worried," Recchi said. "But the guys are so committed to doing the right things and having the right attitude that I believe that, in the end, we're going to be a better team.

"It might not show in the points -- we might not have 105 points again -- but in the end, we believe we're going to have a better team."

Jump year ... and then what

Teams that made the biggest season-to-season point increases and how they did the season after the big jump

Team

W-L-T / Year Before

W-L-T / Jump Year

 Inc.

 W-L-T / Year After 

San Jose

11-71-2 / 1992-93

33-35-16 / 1993-94

58

19-25-4 / 1994-95*

Quebec

20-48-12 / 1991-92

47-27-10 / 1992-93

52

34-42-8 / 1993-94

Winnipeg

9-57-14 / 1980-81

33-33-14 / 1981-82

48

33-39-8 / 1982-83

Penguins

22-46-14 / 2005-06

47-24-11 / 2006-07

47

TBD / 2007-08

N.Y. Islanders

21-51-7-3 / 2000-01

42-28-8-4 / 2001-02

44

35-34-11-2 / 2002-03

Boston

17-43-10 /  1966-67

37-27-10 / 1967-68

40

42-18-16 / 1968-69

*-48-game season because of lockout)




Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published September 30, 2007 4:00 AM


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