Ron Cook: Roberts' signing sends a signal
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We could examine the pitiful Pirates and general manager Dave Littlefield's ridiculous contentions that their fundamentals are better and that the team really isn't far off from being a contender, but where's the fun in that? Why waste precious time on the hopeless? On such a beautiful summer morning, why be negative when there's something so positive going on in our little corner of the sports world?
Specifically, the Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi signings last week.
It's great that Recchi is coming back for another season, even if it will be in a diminished role. The man knows how to win. Remember how Bryan Trottier was an important part of the Penguins' Stanley Cup teams in the early '90s? He was a future hall of famer nearing the end of his career and served a valuable purpose as a third- or fourth-line player. That's Recchi on the Penguins next season. A championship team needs a Recchi.
Certainly, a championship club needs a Roberts.
That signing was significant in many ways, none more so than what it said about the Penguins and the direction they are going. Ottawa was expected to make a big push for Roberts when free agency begins Sunday. He decided to stay with the Penguins because he liked their chances of winning the Cup better. The Senators played in the final last season.
Roberts also agreed to a one-year deal even though he probably could have received two years from Ottawa or another team. At 41, he knows that second season isn't promised to him. He's worried about winning now. He thinks the Penguins give him the best opportunity.
If Roberts believes that strongly, it makes it a lot easier for the rest of us to believe. Remember, he is a guy who had to be talked into waiving his no-trade clause to come to Pittsburgh last season by Mario Lemieux. Now, they can't lure him away.
Everyone makes a big deal of the leadership Roberts provides to a young team, and rightfully so. Sidney Crosby thought so much of him and Recchi that he called both last month to make sure they were OK with him becoming, at 19, the youngest captain in NHL history. That's respect.
It's hard to imagine a better role model for young players than Roberts. His workout regime is legendary, to the degree that many of the Penguins made sure to get his cell phone number at the end of the season so they could make arrangements to join him this summer to train. Crosby spent a couple of days with him in Toronto earlier this month.
But it's not so much Crosby, who also is maniacal about his conditioning, whom Roberts will help the most. It's the Malkins and the Staals, the Whitneys and the Orpiks. Seeing how Roberts trains and what it has meant to his career has to rub off.
But don't underestimate Roberts' contributions on the ice. He won't score 40 goals again, but he still can get in front of the net and cause chaos and pick up deflection and rebound goals. He also remains one of the NHL's most punishing hitters. The lasting image of the Penguins' series playoff loss to the Senators last season was him drilling defenseman Anton Volchenkov into the boards late in Game 5. Not many players would have delivered that hit with not just the game out of hand, but the series and season only seconds from ending.
"Just sending a message for next year," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney noted that night, awe in his voice.
The Roberts and Recchi signings assure general manager Ray Shero of a successful offseason, although his work isn't finished. When free agency begins, he will be looking to get a goal-scoring winger to play with Crosby and to upgrade his defense.
Shero is expected to proceed as the Steelers do and avoid the big free-agent deals. He has said he expects most of the Penguins' improvement to come from within as their young players continue to grow. He also doesn't want to do a five- or six-year deal with a player and be wrong, and have it hurt the team's chances of keeping, say, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal down the road.
That doesn't mean Shero won't be able to find a 25-goal scorer whom Crosby can turn into a 35-goal man. But as much as that goal-scorer would be nice, a tough defenseman is a much greater need. The Penguins scored 277 goals last season, third-most in the league. They can live with that total again. But they need to do better than Josef Melichar and Rob Scuderi on defense. Young Kristopher Letang, who brings a much-needed right-handed shot, is expected to take one of those spots, but he hardly seems like enough.
Shero has plenty to offer free agents even if it isn't big dollars or a lot of years. He has Crosby and the team's other great young talent, first and foremost. And now, fortunately, he has Roberts and his strong belief that wondrous things are just ahead for the franchise.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photos
The signing of Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, above, assure Penguins general manager Ray Shero of a successful offseason, although his work isn't finished.
Click photo for larger image.Gary Roberts is a guy who had to be talked into waiving his no-trade clause to come to Pittsburgh last season by Mario Lemieux. Now, they can't lure him away.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published June 25, 2007 11:06 pm