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Penguins will still rule East

| Saturday, July 5, 2008

The storm has passed. Took with it the Penguins' top two wingers in Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone, plus character guys such as Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall, an enforcer in Georges Laraque and a solid backup goaltender in Ty Conklin.

What's left?

Only an embarrassment of riches.

What's left?

Only the best team in the Eastern Conference.

What's left?

Only a club whose elite young core is nearly secured - Jordan Staal being the final item on the to-do list - for the next several years at unbelievable bargain rates.

So, please, spare us the wailing over Hossa. Spare us the fretting over Ruutu and Conklin.

Now, I would have gone harder after Malone. He probably would have taken less than his market value, too, as so many of his teammates have done.

I love Malone's skill and grit and leadership ability. He's a late bloomer who might still get better. But it's not like he's irreplaceable. Staal can do as much damage or more in front of the net on the power play, and free-agent signee Ruslan Fedotenko will help make up for the missing 27 goals.

Put it like this: If you gave a prospective coach, general manager or owner the choice of any team in the East, 95 out of 100 would choose this one.

The other five would be whisked away in a straitjacket.

Clearly, the Penguins are the strongest team at center, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Staal and Maxime Talbot. Only the Philadelphia Flyers reside in the same neighborhood (though not the same block) down the middle.

Nobody will put more talent on the ice for power plays, if the Penguins deploy, say, Crosby, Malkin and Staal up front with Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney on the points. Nobody has a superior defense, and nobody has a significantly better goaltending situation.

And if you think the Penguins are the only club lacking elite scoring punch and some depth on the wings, go check three-quarters of the other rosters and remember that the team you see now might not be the team you see in October, and the team you see in October definitely won't be the one you see in March.

Rentals remain an option.

In the salary-cap era, every team outside of Detroit has holes. Look at Ottawa's lack of depth on the wings. Look at Tampa Bay's defense (and would anyone feel entirely comfortable with Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig in goal?). Look at the Flyers' depth on defense. Washington's, too. Look at some of the misguided contracts lavished in free agency, starting with the Rangers' ridiculous six-year, $39 million deal for 31-year old defenseman Wade Redden.

Last we saw Redden, he was doing a wonderful imitation of a speed bag as the Penguins beat him to a pulp in the first round of the playoffs.

A popular line in the wake of the free-agency flurry goes like this: The Penguins are worse today than they were a month ago.

Considering that Miroslav Satan and Fedotenko have essentially replaced Hossa and Malone, that point is hard to argue at face-value. But it fails to take into account a crucial point: The Penguins' best young players still have significant upside.

People talk about these guys as if they are finished products. They aren't close. Staal is 19 years old. He will look like a different player in a few years, as he matures into his offensive potential.

Crosby is 20. His next frontier is to develop a finisher's touch and improve his goal-scoring output. I have no doubt he will. The greatest athletes find ways to get better each season, the way Magic Johnson improved his shooting touch and scoring ability with age.

Malkin is 21. As he grows into that lanky frame, he stands a chance to become an even more devastating force and perhaps the best player in the world.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is 23. He began last season as the youngest starting goaltender in the NHL.

Whitney is 25 and has yet to reap the benefits of playing his natural spot at the right point on the power play.

Defenseman Kris Letang is 21 with possibilities of becoming a future All-Star.

Losing Hossa obviously was the greatest disappointment of the past week, but in the end, the Penguins managed to reinforce their team-first culture. As with the Red Wings, it is one predicated on sacrifice with an eye toward winning. We knew that was true on the ice. Now, in the wake of Malkin, Fleury and Orpik all taking less than market value, we see it is just as true in contract negotiations.

Make no mistake: The so-called hometown discount is alive and well in Pittsburgh. If you'd asked me after the Cup final, I'd have said Orpik was gone, and Malkin would want more money than Crosby.

Too bad Hossa didn't buy in. Too bad Malone and the others are gone.

But what's left, you ask?

A lot to look forward to, I'd say.

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