By Mark Madden
Now that the dust has settled on free agency, what did the Penguins really do this off-season?
The Penguins are going to be harder to play against. That means an awful lot.
Some Penguins spent much of last season in a haze of Stanley Cup complacency. The loss of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi left the Pens without a true shutdown defenseman. Marc-Andre Fleury had an off-year. So did Evgeni Malkin, at least by his lofty standards.
Even though Sidney Crosby amazingly and dramatically improved in three different categories (goal-scoring, face-offs, shootouts), the Penguins just weren’t a difficult opponent. You wouldn’t get bruised, aggravated or exhausted most nights.
The signings of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin went a long way toward reversing that.
Michalek is a better shutdown D than Gill or Scuderi. Martin is a better all-around D than Sergei Gonchar.
Michalek makes opposing forwards quit. In last year’s playoff series with Montreal, Mark Eaton actually did a creditable job vs. Mike Cammalleri, but he never discouraged Cammalleri, and eventually Cammalleri got results. Michalek is an eliminator.
As for Martin, he has no real weakness. Some feel the Penguins’ power play will diminish if, as expected, Martin runs it in Gonchar’s absence. But how much more could it diminish? The Pens’ man-advantage unit has underachieved for two straight seasons. Familiarity can actually weaken a power play. You get too comfortable, too repetitive. Martin may change things for the better.
With Michalek and Martin, good pairs are easily assembled. Each defenseman can be himself, rely on his own strengths. I expect a breakout year from Kris Letang, especially if he’s turned loose a bit.
The other signing of note, Arron Asham, is a good get. He and Matt Cooke provide the Penguins a set of toxic twins, bad-news bookends, two guys who are horrifically unpleasant to play against. Asham will make life tougher on foes, easier on Cooke. A third line of Asham, Cooke and Talbot would be grit and menace personified, though Talbot may end up at RW with Malkin and Jordan Staal.
Asham plays no favorites. When he appeared on my radio show, I asked if he’d have trouble hating Philadelphia, his prior team, right away. Replied Asham, “I hate everybody already.” His hands aren’t bad, either. He gets a lot of pucks to the net. Fifteen goals from Asham would not be shocking.
Asham provides other value: The other wings at his level will have to try harder, do better and embrace their own styles, or disappear. Case in point: Tyler Kennedy was both complacent and brutal last season. He lost his grit. All he did was stickhandle and shoot, and to no great effect. Asham’s presence puts Kennedy’s NHL career on the line. Guys like Nick Johnson and Dustin Jeffrey can’t make the team by default. They’ve got to earn it.
I’ve commented elsewhere on the Bill Guerin situation. It wouldn’t bother me if he returned, but I don’t think the Penguins need Guerin. His leadership is no longer required, and he only got 10 even-strength goals. My opinion seems moot, though. I’m told the Penguins don’t want Guerin at any price, and certainly not at the $2m he continues to demand.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).