Nobody in Pittsburgh could have been happier than new coach Ed
Olczyk this summer when he heard that his boss, All-Star center
and owner Mario Lemieux, had decided to play another season.
After leading the Penguins, at age 37, with 91 points in 2002-03,
Lemieux had been vague about whether he would return to the ice
or work full time out of his CEO office. Olczyk, who succeeded
the fired Rick Kehoe on June 11, was already looking at a roster
that had been stripped of almost all of its veteran
talent--including forwards Alexei Kovalev and Jan Hrdina--in a
series of trades that trimmed the payroll by $3.8 million.
Other than Lemieux, the only marquee player left in Pittsburgh is
forward Martin Straka, who scored 46 points in 60 games and will
play on the first line with Lemieux and Aleksey Morozov. Behind
them will be free-agent signees Kelly Buchberger and Mike
Eastwood, as well as a few of the fast, inexperienced young
forwards the Penguins got in last season's salary dump, including
right wing Matt Bradley, 25, and left wing Ramzi Abid, 23.
Olczyk, an NHL forward for 16 years before retiring in 2000, was
hired out of the broadcast booth and has no coaching experience.
He's implementing a system that combines speed with defensive
responsibility, which should help a club that allowed 255 goals
last year, the second-worst total in the East. "We'd be foolish
if we didn't utilize our speed," he says. "We're going to
pressure and be relentless."
Pittsburgh's $22-million-plus payroll is one of the lowest in pro
sports, but at least Lemieux and G.M. Craig Patrick gave the
franchise some hope for the future when they traded up for the
No. 1 pick in the June draft and selected 18-year-old goaltender
Marc-Andre Fleury. He will start the season in Pittsburgh after
signing a three-year, $15-million contract on Monday. "Our only
goal is to make the playoffs," says Lemieux. "We don't care about
the rest of the hockey world. I think we're going to surprise a
lot of people." Anything but a last-place finish would amount to
a surprise. --M.B.
COLOR PHOTO: JASON COHN/REUTERS MARIO LEMIEUX
( 1 Best - 30 Worst )
POWER PLAY 25
PENALTY KILLING 30
G.M. AND COACH 30
The Penguins' best defenseman is 2002 waiver-wire castoff Dick
Tarnstrom. That tells you how thin their back line is.... With
Pittsburgh likely to be outmanned nightly, rookie coach Ed
Olczyk's most important task may be to keep his youthful team
from getting down on itself.... Of the three players obtained for
Jaromir Jagr two years ago, only one looks like a bona fide
NHLer. C Kris Beech, 22, has a good future, but C Michal Sivek,
22, and D Ross Lupaschuk, 22, have not progressed as hoped.