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PENGUINS LAID SOLID FOUNDATION FOR NEXT SEASON

Thursday, 05.11.2006 / 12:00 AM / Pittsburgh Penguins
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PENGUINS LAID SOLID FOUNDATION FOR NEXT SEASON

The 2005-06 season was a rollercoaster ride for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Through it all, one underlying theme emerged – change.

A new CBA brought about changes to the way the NHL game is played. The Penguins changed their roster with a bevy of new faces. They changed their coaching staff in mid-season, while injuries and retirements combined with an infusion of young talent changed the team’s identity.

In addition, super rookie sensation Sidney Crosby changed the NHL record books forever in 2005-06. The 18-year-old delivered one of the best rookie seasons in league history. He became the NHL’s youngest player to reach the 100-point mark at the age of 18 years, 253 days as he finished his season with 102 points (39+63) in 81 games. Also, he surpassed Mario Lemieux’s Penguins record 100 points as a rookie in 1984-85.

Along the way, Crosby captivated fans around the world. His impact was felt especially in Pittsburgh as the Penguins led the NHL in increased attendance for 2005-06.

Crosby’s thrilling debut helped underscore the biggest change – the direction of the franchise.

Bolstered by their young talent, the Penguins began to thrive under head coach Michel Therrien and assistant coach Mike Yeo and their disciplined system, which proved to be a winning formula in the American Hockey League. The two guided Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to a 21-1-2-1 start and 45 points in the team’s first 25 games in 2005-06.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won its first nine games of the season and did not lose a game in regulation until its 24th game. The Baby Penguins also established an AHL road winning streak of 15 games, dating back to April 10 of last season.

When Therrien and Yeo were promoted to Pittsburgh from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Dec. 15, the Penguins were in last place. The Penguins finished 29th in the NHL with a 22-46-14 record. However, Therrien and Yeo were able to translate their successful system to Pittsburgh, which provided a solid foundation heading into next season.

“When I came here, I wanted to make a change; I wanted to make an impact about our philosophy as a team,” Therrien said. “Definitely, there were some things that needed to be approached with our team. I didn’t like the direction that team was going.

“I think we [turned it around] the hard way, though,” he continued. “It had to be hard, but we became a family and that’s the most-important thing to me. We needed to become a family – I think those guys combined together and they enjoyed coming to the rink. The No. 1 thing they enjoyed was they started working as a team. They enjoyed playing a system. When they played together, like we did most of the nights, the image of the Pittsburgh Penguins started to change. This is something I wanted to change. We’re not relying on our skill. We’re relying on the team concept and that was important to me. If you want to have success in this business as a team, first of all you need to become a team and this is what we were – we were a team.”

The Penguins’ special teams improved dramatically under Therrien and Yeo, especially the power-play performance. During former head coach Eddie Olczyk’s reign, the Penguins were 30 for 201 on the power play in 31 games for a 14.9 percent conversion rate, which ranked 24th in the NHL. Since Therrien and Yeo took over, the power play improved greatly. Pittsburgh went 64 for 294 under Therrien in 51 games for a 21.7 percent conversion rate and finished sixth overall in the NHL.

The Penguins’ penalty killing also improved. The team ranked last in the NHL most of the year, but improved steadily, made up a lot of ground and finished 29th in the standings with a 78.8 percent conversion rate.

In addition, the Penguins started converting some of their short-handed chances into offensive opportunities. They scored 13 short-handed goals this season, a number that's tied for eighth in the league. Ten of those 13 short-handed goals come in the last 33 games after they produced just three in the first 49 games of the season.

“My recipe is always the same – I want to win. I want to win badly, every game. I want to win. I want to have my players working hard. I want to have commitment from everyone involved in the team. I want to be able to win,” Therrien said. “First of all, we have to become a team and this is what we were. I have to give the players credit because the players buy into becoming a family. The players buy into commitment of hard work. If, as a coach, I see a commitment from my players, there’s nothing I can say as a coach. That’s my job and my duty to make sure my players are going to compete every night. They were competing every night. It’s going to happen every once in a while that you’re going to have a bad game. It’s going to happen – it happened to us in the past two months. But, when my team is going to play 90-95 percent of the time, I am going to be satisfied.”

Therrien and Yeo were able to get optimal performances out of their players despite not having the luxury of working with a training camp or a full season.

“It takes time. I did not expect in 24 hours or 48 hours the system would be in place. That’s not the way it works,” Therrien said. “Usually, when you have a coaching change, the intensity, the adrenaline starts and lasts for 10 days. You know it’s going down and it’s always like this. We tried to change after we saw them going back down to their bad habits. It took some time, but we did it. We know we did it.”

They hope to add another member to their coaching staff to help share the duties.

“There’s no doubt, that’s our plan. We came into the middle of the season. It was a lot of hard work for myself and Mike Yeo. We got some help from Eddie Johnston. The reason why we didn’t want to hire a guy right away was because we wanted to take our time to hire the right guy,” Therrien said. “We put in the effort to make sure our team was well-prepared. There were a lot of times we didn’t get to sleep until 3 or 4 a.m. to make sure our team was prepared, especially for those back-to-back games. We did it. Definitely, we’re looking forward to hire someone who will help us.

The major change Therrien and Yeo brought was an increase in self discipline and a dedication to a team approach within their structured system.

“First of all, habits. I wanted to change the program,” Therrien said. “A lot of guys, we gave them their first chance to play in the NHL and some of those guys spend time together the last two years in Wilkes-Barre, so they grew together, which is a good thing. Players have to believe about the way we try to bring things and the way we approach our system. I got the feeling they all bought into it. It got to a point in the season when the guys were not executing our system, I didn’t have to do anything. They knew what to do. We had some young guys, but the leadership started and that’s a good sign.”

The few Penguins’ veterans thrived under Therrien. Forward John LeClair finished his 15th NHL season – and first in Pittsburgh – on a tear. He racked up 25 points (12+13) in his last 27 games. He finished as the team’s third-leading scorer with 51 points (22+29) in 73 games played.

LeClair eclipsed some landmarks as well. He scored his 400th NHL goal with a power-play tally March 29 vs. Florida. He became the seventh American to reach the 400-goal milestone. He recorded his 400th NHL assist March 1 vs. Ottawa. He recorded his 800th career point with an assist on Pittsburgh’s first goal in a 5-4 win over the Canadiens on March 18. The Vermont native has racked up 812 points (404+408) in 946 games played.

In addition, LeClair’s leadership was an invaluable asset for the abundance of young players in the Penguins’ locker room.

“He was kind of the big brother to those young kids,” Therrien said. “A lot of young players were relying on him. He really helped me and Mike Yeo, regarding leadership. The last two months he played, he was skating well and he really enjoyed coming to the rink.”

Sergei Gonchar, another veteran, responded positively to Therrien’s system. The veteran defenseman began to excel once he became comfortable in his new environment. In his last 23 games played (since Jan. 16), Gonchar racked up 37 points (6+31) after tallying 11 points (1+10) in his previous 24 games. He finished the year ranked eighth among defensemen in scoring with 58 points (12+46) in 75 games, which tied the third-highest point total of his 11-year career.

Gonchar’s 58 points were the most by a Penguins defenseman since the 1995-96 season when Sergei Zubov tallied 66 (11+55).

“Sergei Gonchar was another guy that we felt really tried to pick up his game the way we play,” Therrien said. “It’s a good thing for us for the future. As far as I am concerned, he was one of the best defensemen in the league. And, like John LeClair, he provided solid leadership.”

Ryan Malone, in his second NHL season, responded positively after Therrien and Yeo arrived in Pittsburgh as well. He came on strong and concluded the season with a three-game points streak (3+1). He finished the season with 44 points (22+22) in 77 games, which was one point better than his 43-point effort (22+21) in 81 games as a rookie.

He was a force on the penalty kill, too. He notched five short-handed goals in the team’s last 33 games and finished tied for third in the NHL with five short-handed goals and in a tie for third with seven short-handed points (5+2).

Defenseman Josef Melichar, in his fifth NHL campaign, finished with a career-best mark of 15 points (3+12). His 15 points surpassed the totals of his entire career (13 points) prior to this season.

Andy Hilbert, in his fourth NHL season, thrived after being claimed by the Penguins off waivers on March 9. He found instant chemistry with rookies Colby Armstrong and Crosby on the first line and had 18 points (7+11) in 19 games in a Penguins uniform. He finished the year with a five-game points streak (2+5) and wound up with 27 points (12+15) in 47 games.

However, it was the Penguins’ bounty of talented rookies that took center stage in 2005-06. The Penguins had 12 rookies play in at least one NHL game this year: forwards Erik Christensen, Michel Ouellet, Maxime Talbot, Matt Murley, Shane Endicott, Jani Rita, Crosby and Armstrong; defensemen Ryan Whitney and Noah Welch; and goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin.

Combined, the Penguins rookies accounted for 97 of the team’s 244 goals (39.8 percent) and 255 of the team’s 598 points (42.6 percent).

The rookies put their names in the record books in Jan. 3’s 6-4 win in Montreal. All six Penguins goals were scored by rookies. Crosby had two, while Ouellet, Talbot and Endicott tallied goals. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was only the fifth time in the NHL’s “modern era” that a team produced six or more goals in a game and they were all scored by rookies.

In addition, that Penguins rookie outburst was the most in the most in the NHL since the Mighty Ducks had goals from four rookies (Frank Banham, Mike Crowley, Josef Marha and Pavel Trnka) in their 4-1 win in Los Angeles on April 18, 1998.

“I really like the way our young players played,” Therrien said. “They grew through the season and this is one of the reasons why I am really optimistic for the future of this team.”

Crosby finished his rookie season in scintillating fashion. He racked up 37 points in 23 games once play resumed on March 1 following the Olympic break. He fought through a nagging injury in his final five games, but still managed to rack up 11 points (3+8) to complete his record-setting surge over the 100-point mark.

The NHL’s previous standard for 100 points by an 18-year-old was set by Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, who scored his 100th point at the age of 18 years, 354 days. Crosby beat him by a significant margin – 101 days.

In addition, Crosby tied Joe Juneau for fifth place in NHL rookie scoring. Juneau had 102 points (32+70) in 84 games in the 1992-93 season.

Crosby led all rookies in assists and finished second in rookie scoring to Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. The 20-year-old winger had four more points than Crosby.

Armstrong thrived once he was put on Crosby’s wing. Armstrong tallied 40 points (16+24) in 47 games for the Penguins. Crosby set up nine of Armstrong’s 16 goals, while seven of Armstrong’s 24 assists were on Crosby tallies. Armstrong closed the season with points in four-straight games (3+5).

Defenseman Ryan Whitney closed his rookie campaign with a five-game points streak (2+5). The tall blueliner collected 38 points (6+32) in 68 NHL games.

In a short NHL stint, Welch provided steady defense and consistent offense as he tallied four points (1+3) in five games.

Fleury showed flashes of brilliance in goal for the Penguins. He backstopped the Penguins in 13 of their 22 wins in 2005-06. He finished with a 3.25 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage. He had one shutout on the year as well.

It’s the Penguins’ solid veteran core as well as their talented group of young stars that has Therrien so excited for training camp.

“It’s a pretty special season. I started the season in the American Hockey League and part of a team that ended up having set an American Hockey League record with one loss in 25 games,” Therrien said. “We came here and tried to make an impact quickly. We all knew that we needed a new direction. We tried to bring direction to that team. Some people feel comfortable the way things were working and that was not my philosophy as a coach.

“But, after the beginning of the season in Wilkes-Barre and trying to change things in Pittsburgh and the way that we finished the season with our young players and to be part of Sidney Crosby being the youngest player in NHL history to achieve 100 points. I am going to sit down and say that, as far as I am concerned, I did what I had to do,” he continued. “As a coach, you always have to evaluate what you’re working with. I won Memorial Cups and was proud to win them. I brought a team to the Stanley Cup playoffs and we beat the first seed and I was proud. But what we did with this team this year and what we accomplished – yes, maybe it was not a matter of results. And, I knew when I came here the team was in last place. I knew a lot of things were going on. But what we were capable to accomplish through the end of the season, that’s one of the reasons I am optimistic because we did it with the young players.”

The Penguins could add another impressive young talent with the arrival of Evgeni Malkin from Russia. The 2004 second-overall pick will be in a Penguins uniform in the fall if the Russian Ice Hockey Federation agrees to the IIHF’s transfer agreement with the NHL.

Regardless, the Penguins should stock more young prospects at the NHL Entry Draft as they draft second overall.

“We’re happy to get the No. 2 pick, but let me tell you something, this is the last time we’re going to draft No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3,” Therrien said. “It’s a good thing for this organization and we’re certainly going to have a good player, but let me tell you something – this is the last year.”

 

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