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Martin, Michalek part of Pens' new-look defense

The Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans have a lot to get excited about this season.

For starters, the Pens will open their new 18,087-seat arena, Consol Energy Center, on Oct. 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers in what is sure to be an emotional evening. The state-of-the-art, $321 million facility should keep the Penguins in Steel Town long after Sidney Crosby's No. 87 is raised to the rafters.

On Jan. 1, the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will feature Crosby's Penguins against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals at nearby Heinz Field, home of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers. Leading up to that much-anticipated game will be a four-episode series produced by HBO Sports -- debuting Dec. 15 -- that will give fans an inside look at their favorite team in a way they never thought possible.

 

The fresh start in a new building is for the best after the way the Penguins closed their old home, Mellon Arena, a Game 7 loss to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the Conference Semifinals last spring.

The offense from that squad remains pretty much intact -- minus veterans Bill Guerin, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Ruslan Fedotenko. Pittsburgh's biggest overhaul was on defense, where Sergei Gonchar (Ottawa), Jordan Leopold (Buffalo) and Mark Eaton (New York Islanders) signed elsewhere. General Manager Ray Shero failed to lure defender Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver), but did succeed in signing a couple big names, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.

 

Coach Dan Bylsma spent most of training camp establishing his top two lines. Crosby could center the No. 1 unit between grinders Chris Kunitz (32 points, 112 hits) and Pascal Dupuis (38 points, 27 takeaways). Crosby, a three-time NHL All-Star, tied for the League-lead with a career-high 51 goals last season. It marked only the second time in franchise history that a Penguin led the NHL in that category -- Mario Lemieux had 69 in 1995-96.

The acquisition of center Mike Comrie might allow Bylsma to move Evgeni Malkin to second-line right wing with center Jordan Staal, once he returns. Staal's streak of 327 straight games played will come to an end when the season starts while he recovers from a second operation on his infected right foot. The Penguins announced Sept. 16 that Staal would miss between five and six weeks. Comrie, signed to a one-year deal in September, is capable of centering the third line, a role Staal perfected the last three seasons. In Staal's absence, Bylsma had Comrie centering top prospect Eric Tangradi and Malkin in preseason games.

Malkin spent the better portion of the 2009 postseason on right wing and produced 14 goals and 36 points en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In Staal's absence, Malkin also could jump to first-line right wing alongside Crosby.

Malkin, who played just 67 games in 2009-10 and finished with career-low offensive totals across the board, also played on the wing for Russia in the 2010 World Championship. To give Malkin and Staal some added space and time to work their magic, Bylsma could insert Matt Cooke (183 hits, 28 takeaways, 30 points, plus-17 rating) on left wing.

When Staal returns, Comrie could slide into the third-line center role, with Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy.

Tangradi, a Philadelphia native who was acquired in a trade with Anaheim in 2009, could see significant ice time this season. Shero also signed free-agent forward Arron Asham, who likely will assume fourth-line duty on the wing. Asham played 150 games with the Philadelphia Flyers the past two years, scoring 18 goals, 44 points and 281 penalty minutes. He also chipped in 5 goals and 9 points in 29 postseason games with the Flyers.

Now that Sergei Gonchar is no longer the Pens' top defenseman -- a title he held the previous five seasons -- it's time to turn the page along the blue line.

The back end was a touchy subject at the conclusion of 2009-10 after the Penguins finished 20th in the League with a 2.87 goals-against average. General Manager Ray Shero is hoping Martin, a former Devil, and Phoenix Coyotes mainstay Michalek will help offset the departure of Gonchar.

Martin played in 400 career games spanning six seasons with the Devils. While he finished first among Devils defenders with a plus-10 rating last season, he was limited to just 22 games due to a non-displaced fracture in his left forearm.

Michalek, who might be paired with Brooks Orpik, has played six NHL seasons, the last five with the Phoenix Coyotes, totaling 27 goals and 115 points in 415 games. He led the NHL in blocked shots in 2008-09 with 271 and served as alternate captain in Phoenix last season, when the Coyotes ranked third in the League with a 2.39 GAA.

The newest Penguins will join a few mainstays, including Orpik (255 hits, 117 blocked shots), Kris Letang (117 hits, 95 blocks) and Alex Goligoski (50 hits, 93 blocks). Goligoski was second behind Gonchar in scoring among the team's defensemen last season with 8 goals and 37 points. His plus-7 rating was tops among Pittsburgh's regular blueliners. Letang connected for 27 points and Orpik had 25.

Expect the Penguins to give prospect Ben Lovejoy every opportunity to prove himself. In 65 games with the Wilkes-Barre Penguins of the American Hockey League, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound defender had 9 goals and 29 points. He also played in 12 games with the Penguins last season, notching 3 assists and a plus-8 rating.

 

 

When it comes to goaltending, the Penguins remain committed to Marc-Andre Fleury, the first pick of the 2003 Entry Draft, and for good reason.

Fleury remains a go-to man between the pipes after finishing 37-21-6 with a 2.65 GAA and .905 save percentage in 67 games in his sixth season with the Penguins. He didn't exactly have a scintillating playoff, though, going 7-6 with a 2.78 GAA and .891 save percentage in 13 games, but is experienced enough and a proven winner.

Fleury will be backed up by veteran Brent Johnson, who went 10-6-1 with a 2.76 GAA and .906 save percentage in 23 games last season. The 33-year-old Johnson is entering his 11th NHL season and second with the Penguins.