Improved defensive play delights Penguins' Shero
Penguins general manager Ray Shero on his defensemen: "They're all mobile, they can all move the puck and they can defend."
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Ray Shero, the architect of a Penguins team that leads the NHL's Eastern Conference, took a few minutes to offer his impressions of its performance at roughly the middle of the season.
His first thoughts after 42 games did not cover the 3.17 goals per game that rank the Penguins among the most potent in the NHL going into the home game against Minnesota.
"I look at our team, and, when we evaluated our team after [last] season, our decision was to try to upgrade our defense," the general manager said Friday.
To Shero and his staff, ranking in the bottom third of the league in goals against was not acceptable. So, they made difficult decisions
Game: Penguins vs. Minnesota Wild, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Jose Theodore for Wild.
Penguins: Are 2-2-2 since Christmas break. ... Second in NHL with 2.26 goals against per game. ... In his 3 games, Jordan Staal has won 32 of 58 faceoffs (55.2 percent).
Wild: Are 4-0-1 in past 5 road games. ... Tied for last in league with 25.6 shots a game before Friday. ... Cal Clutterbuck leads NHL with 186 hits.
Of note: : Of Clutterbuck's 12 goals, 11 have produced a tie, a one-goal lead or a two-goal lead for Minnesota.
They did not or could not re-sign defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold.
To complement the returning core of Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, the Penguins signed free agents Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek -- "Even on a stand-alone basis, being able to add two guys like this has really upgraded our defense," Shero said -- and opted to give some of their prospects a shot at sticking in the NHL this season.
Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy grabbed the sixth and seventh spots on defense.
The Penguins through Friday had climbed to second in the NHL with just 2.26 goals per game allowed, down from the 2.87 that ranked them 20th last season.
Not only that, but the Penguins did not have to sacrifice offense, which has increased after averaging 3.04 goals a game in 2009-10.
"I think our goal-scoring is better, but defensively we've been much better," Shero said.
That offers some validation to Shero, who chose upgrading his defense and moving Evgeni Malkin to the wing over trying to bring in a scoring winger or two.
"The way the team is, I don't look at just a single position -- wingers having X amount of goals, things like that," Shero said. "If I have wingers who can score but I don't have [defensemen] who can move the puck up so we can score, it doesn't help.
"Every team hopes for secondary scoring. A lot of our secondary scoring is coming from the defense or [role players]. The other guys have chipped in their share."
The latter, Shero said, would include forwards Max Talbot, who is having "a bounce-back" year after 2009 shoulder surgery, rookie Mark Letestu, journeyman Chris Conner, feisty Matt Cooke and top-line wingers Chris Kunitz, also having a bounce-back season, and Pascal Dupuis, who has been backchecking furiously lately.
Shero certainly was not complaining about what he called the Penguins' "primary scoring" -- center Sidney Crosby, who leads the league with 66 points but is out right now because of a concussion.
"Crosby's been spectacular," Shero said, using similar praise for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is 17-3-2 in the 22 starts since a shaky start.
Fleury's play certainly has not hindered a club that was determined to upgrade its defense, and neither has a penalty-killing unit that ranked first in the NHL as of Friday with an 87.6 percent success rate.
Among defensemen, Letang is one of the league leaders with 36 points and one of the overall NHL leaders with a plus-minus rating of plus-23.
"He has taken it to different level," Shero said. "And [Goligoski] has always been kind of under the radar."
Goligoski has 23 points. Orpik leads the Penguins' defensemen with 106 hits, Michalek leads the team with 73 blocked shots and Martin has played a steady, smart game.
"They're all mobile, they can all move the puck and they can defend," Shero said.
Shero also likes the Penguins' basic identity, although he might define it differently than most.
"People look at the Penguins and think 'high-skilled team,' but I think this is a hard-working, blue-collar team," Shero said. "We're a physical team.
"I think we have a pretty good team."
Good enough to win the Presidents' Trophy as the top team in the regular season or win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years?
"Are we the best team in the league? I have no idea," Shero said. "Everybody goes in spurts. We're going to be competitive and be a difficult team to play against."
NOTE -- Shero said nothing is imminent as far as signing any upcoming free agents to extensions. He recently signed Engelland to a three-year extension, but said that was largely because Engelland is unique as a developing heavyweight NHL fighter capable of being a top-six defenseman.
First Published January 8, 2011 12:00 am