It wasn’t until last season that we heard Craig Patrick finally admitted he’s been gearing his moves to be ready for the new CBA. Pittsburgh’s responsibility in operating a budget within their means recently forced the trade of yet another star player, Martin Straka to Los Angeles for 28-year-old Slovak defenseman Martin Strbak and 19-year-old Russian left-wing prospect Sergei Anshakov.
The acquisition of Anshakov adds to the already strong and talented depth chart at left wing. Scouting reports indicate Anshakov is a powerful skater with large strides, above average puck handing ability, and excellent shooting accuracy. He still needs to fill
out his 6’3″ frame and learn to keep his head up on the ice. Anshakov has recorded two goals and two assists in 13 games for CSKA in the Russian Super League.
After the trade, Pittsburgh summoned youngsters Kris Beech and Matt Murley from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to join an already strong and long list of young players on the roster. On the current 23-man roster, twelve players are 24 years old or younger, setting up the franchise for years to come.
One of the most exciting and passionate prospects playing is homegrown left-winger Ryan Malone. This 24-year-old hulking two-way forward has been getting compared to Clarke Gilles, a former Islander great.
Malone has been one of the most impressive and complete rookies to play for Pittsburgh since Jaromir Jagr during the 1990-91 season. Malone has shown no fear in throwing his body around to finish a check or take the defensive position along the boards.
On offense, he’s driving opposing defensemen crazy as he protects the puck along the board and around the net with veteran ease and on the attack, he’s driving to the net and shooting the puck. Malone has future captain written all over him and he’s moving up the
scoring chart netting seven goals and five assists in 25 games. Malone was drafted by the Penguins in the fourth round, 114th overall in 1999.
When discussing the left-wing depth chart, Konstantin Koltsov‘s speed and work ethic must be acknowledged. On nights the Penguins get thoroughly pounded and outplayed, you won’t see Koltsov taking a shift off and if you hit the young man, expect an angry and determined skater to come back hard.
Koltsov’s one downfall and something that has plagued him his whole life, his speed and quickness haven’t been approached by his hands and goal scoring ability. Once Koltsov gains more experience in the NHL, his desires for the net will allow for him to score goals. So far this season, Koltsov has scored just two goals and assisted on nine others in 25 games.
As Koltsov and Malone are setting themselves up for a nice career in the NHL, Ramzi Abid‘s has more questions than answers. Abid won’t fool anyone with his speed, stick handling, or passing but he’s a bull to contain when he’s working in the offensive zone.
Abid has looked better over the last few games since he was inserted into the lineup but for him to stick in Pittsburgh or the NHL, he must continue to take the puck to the net and battle because the numbers and depth chart are stacked against him.
Unfortunately for Abid, he is out indefinitely with an apparent re-aggravation of his rebuilt knee and a diagnosis wouldn’t be known until later Monday. Abid has played in only 16 games scoring three goals and two assists.
While Abid awaits word on his knee injury, Matt Murley knows that on a two-way contract, his icetime is given as long as he’s playing a productive two-way style. Scouts view him as a nice guy to have because he’s a good passer, willing to play in the high traffic areas, good wrist shot, and can play on a defensive line. While his time has been short in the NHL, Murley seems to have a knack to staying outside of the scoring areas and lacks confidence with the puck.
He’ll need to get that edge in the NHL the team has been waiting to see out of guys like Beech and Kraft because his zero point total in five games will not translate into more ice time. Matt’s numbers in the AHL this season are a little more respectable scoring three times and assisting on 12.
Finally but not lastly at left-wing is Tomas Surovy. Mario Lemieux, right or wrong, said Surovy reminded him of Peter Bondra. Surovy had a so-so training camp and got the boot to Wilkes-Barre and since his recall, only displayed short flashes of his skill set. Surovy has an excellent wrist shot and goal scoring pedigree, something sorely missing in the organization.
The Penguins and Surovy would benefit from him playing on the top two lines and more at left-wing than the right-wing. Tomas has shown more creativity and confidence with the puck when he’s on the left side and now that Straka is gone, Olczyk might be more willing to make the switch for good as long as Surovy can show more of his AHL’s numbers of six goals and eight assists in 13 games instead of the lone goal scored in ten games this season for the Penguins.
Brooks Orpik is another bullish and emerging defenseman finding his groove in the NHL. He’s another blueliner looking to keep his area clear and clean while quickly moving the puck to his forwards. Like Melichar, he’s getting quality penalty-killing time
and has seen some time on the point on the power play but his minus-14 rating is a bit misleading due to playing on a leaky defensive team.
The strongest position throughout the organization might be in goal where last summer’s No. 1 overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury performs in tandem with fellow French-Canadian Sebastien Caron. Fleury shot out of a cannon this season displaying his quick side-to-side
flexibility and only recently has struggled because of poor support.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick decided to send Fleury to Team Canada to gain valuable experience in the World Junior Tournament and then after the tournament, they’ll decide if he’s goes to Pittsburgh or Cape Breton. Fleury’s record of 4-9-2, 3.15 GAA, and .911 SV% will not be the deciding factor if he is returned to Cape Breton as the Penguins are expected to lose $5 million this season and if Fleury comes back to play beyond 25 games, they could risk him attaining some bonus incentives close to $3 million and putting the team further into debt.
Support for Sebastien Caron has been no different and his side-to-side quickness has improved with new assistant coach Lorne Molleken working with him in practice. Caron doesn’t have the same natural abilities as Fleury but he’s still a solid and capable of handling the pressure as a No. 1. So far, he’s gone 2-6-2, 3.73 GAA, and .886 SV% in 11 games.
Both goaltenders realize the situation and work together to form a good working relationship that can and will only benefit both players and the team. Once the Penguins form better chemistry as a team on the ice, will it translate into better overall numbers for Caron and Fleury.
The future looks bright with the current crop of young NHLers in Pittsburgh but if they do not work hard or produce, they’ll have competition in the coming seasons as the team looks to have a steady stream of players coming from the 2001, 2002, and 2003 draft classes and the hopeful competition for free agents thanks to a new CBA and arena.