PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The ingredients to blow it all up were there. All Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero had to do was start stirring the pot.
Only, that’s not how Shero likes to do business. Shero is a builder. As disappointed as he was after watching the Boston Bruins dismantle his team in a decisive four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference finals last June, Shero resisted the temptation to make major changes.
Instead, he doubled down on the core he believes is good enough to make the Penguins fixtures as Stanley Cup contenders so long as star Sidney Crosby’s No. 87 is out there on the ice.
Coach Dan Bylsma received a two-year contract extension while former MVP Evgeni Malkin and Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang both agreed to eight-year deals. Forward Pascal Dupuis turned aside more lucrative offers for the chance to stick around four more years and play alongside Crosby.
“It’s the best possible situation for me,” said Dupuis, who scored 20 goals during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. “I play with the best team in the NHL. I play with great players every night.”
Players who are anxious to bookend the Cup they won as youngsters in 2009. Pittsburgh loaded up for a run last spring, bringing in future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla and veterans Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. It worked for two rounds. It fizzled in the conference finals as the NHL’s highest scoring team failed to lead the Bruins for a single second.
Still, Crosby remains certain his team’s best days are ahead. No need to fixate on the past.
“You have to get over it pretty quickly and realize it’s a long season ahead of us,” he said. “We’ve got to learn from that but obviously you can’t dwell on it. I think we’ve moved on.”
Here are five keys for the Penguins if they want to make parade plans for next June:
HEALTHY & HAPPY CROSBY: After spending nearly two years recovering from concussion-like symptoms, Crosby missed the final month of the 2013 regular season with a broken jaw that forced him to wear an awkward protective shield in the playoffs. As his smile will attest, his jaw is fine. So are his spirits now that the headaches that dogged him for 18 months during 2011 and 2012 are long gone. “It’s nice,” he said. “I like competing and going out there and preparing and going through all the regular routine without having to worry about those type of things.”
FLOWER POWER: Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury lost his starting job to backup Tomas Vokoun during Pittsburgh’s post-season run after struggling during a first-round series against the New York Islanders. The former No. 1 pick spent a portion of the off-season working with a sports psychologist to help him regain his confidence. He’ll need it now that Vokoun is out indefinitely due to blood clots in his pelvis. Fleury wasn’t exactly sharp in the preseason and the leash might not be too long if he can’t return to form.
BEAU KNOWS SCORING: Second-year forward Beau Bennett may have been one of the biggest revelations of training camp. He played well at times as a rookie last season but has added 10 pounds of muscle and a layer of explosiveness that should play well if he finds his way onto the second line with Malkin and James Neal. His speed and deft touch make him a nice complement to the hard-shooting Neal and the imaginative Malkin.
OLYMPIC HOPES: Perhaps more than any other team, the Penguins could be the most affected by the Olympic break. A half-dozen or more players could spend three weeks in Sochi, Russia trying to help their home countries win Olympic gold. The same goes for Bylsma, who will coach Team USA. Bylsma estimated his pre-Olympic work is “85 per cent” done but the buildup to the games and the emotional and physical toll it will have on his players could have a long-term effect on the team’s success.
WELCOME BACK: The Penguins had a very specific vision for defenceman Rob Scuderi when they signed the free agent in July. Scuderi gave Pittsburgh’s blue line the enforcer it desperately needed when he helped the team raise the Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh hopes he’ll do the same for an offensively talented unit that can sometimes forget about the most important aspect of its job. Scuderi will do what he can to tighten things up but added “even if I’m playing at the highest level I can possibly play at, I’m not going to carry this team.”
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