Penguins continue youth movement

By Keith Justus

The Pittsburgh Penguins have are skating a huge portion of young players during the 2003-04 season. Currently on the roster they have 11 players 25 years of age or younger. Next season, if there is one, they may be skating even more.

Likely gone from the current roster will be several veteran players. A few others will be signed to take their places and help guide the youth movement but, nonetheless, those presumably departed veterans will open up several roster spots that will be up for grabs.

Forwards Kris Beech and Michal Sivek, defenseman Ross Lupaschuk (the three players, all 23 years of age, acquired in the Jaromir Jagr trade), and forward Matt Murley (24) will be expected to make the jump full time to the NHL. Indeed, Murley and Lupaschuk seem poised to make the jump now. That is, if they are still with the franchise; Beech, Sivek, and Lupaschuk will be restricted free agents at the end of the 2003-04 campaign.

It also seems likely that those Murley and Lupaschuk will be seeing time with the big club this season as the Penguins’ disastrous 2003-04 comes to a close. Murley was the only Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin to play in the AHL All-Star game and he did not disappoint, scoring two goals and an assist. He continues to be one of the top playmakers on the club as he possesses perhaps both the best ice vision and two-way abilities on the team. Lupaschuk, though at times still prone to turning the puck over, has advanced his defensive play by leaps and bounds from where it was even just one season ago. Lupaschuk=s goal scoring has decreased substantially this season, but he is currently ranked third on the club in assists (behind Murley & Beech) and second in plus/minus rating. Lupaschuk=s rifle shot from the point and the fact that he is right-handed are two commodities all NHL teams desire.

Most certainly, NHL-experienced Kris Beech would have been included as a likely call-up along with Murley and Lupaschuk but injuries continue to bug the young centerman. Beech has already missed substantial time over the last two seasons due to serious injuries and he has recently suffered another, breaking his clavicle February 12th, and could miss the rest of the season. At the point of that injury, Beech led the WB/S Penguins in scoring and plus/minus rating and, though he’d been streaky he had, at times, been nothing short of dominant at the AHL level.

Michal Sivek is another matter. Due to numerous nagging and ultimately season ending injuries, he had a tough season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and his future with the franchise is even more unclear. Though, it is equally unlikely that the franchise would be ready to give up on a 6’3″, 215-pound 22-year-old just yet. If nothing else, with that size and his propensity for taking the body Sivek could be an effective third line left winger in the NHL.

Injury issues would seem to loom large in the Penguins decisions to retain either Beech and/or Sivek after this season. If they are resigned, expect those players to be forefront among those added to the young core of Rico Fata, Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik, Sebastien Caron, Konstantin Koltsov, Marc-Andre Fleury. Pittsburgh, if it survives, could be a dangerous franchise in a few years. Current powerhouses like Ottawa and Tampa Bay were in similar situations just a few years ago, themselves. Given the CBA and arena situation in Pittsburgh, the talented youth are all Penguins fans have right now.

The Penguins recently acquired two young defensemen: hulking Finn Pauli Levokari for cast-off Brendan Buckley and Ric Jackman for veteran Drake Berehowsky. Levokari is a massive 6’7″, 260 blueliner with a good pass and who, despite being 25 years of age is in only his second season of North American hockey. Drafted in 2002 by Atlanta it is likely that, as long as Levokari demonstrates a decent ability to skate, he may well see time in Pittsburgh before season=s end. The Pens have made no secret that they expect their defensemen to punish opponents and Levokari has more than sufficient physical attributes for such endeavors. Jackman is also 25 but, unlike Levokari, has played his entire young career in North America. He was a No. 1 draft pick (5th overall in 1996 by the Stars) who has yet to earn steady work in the NHL despite very impressive numbers in both juniors and the minor leagues. Jackman will get his chance with the Penguins immediately.

It’s probable that Pens GM Craig Patrick would be searching for more diamonds in the rough before the trade deadline. A defenseman like Matt Carkner comes to mind. Originally drafted in the second round in 1999 by Montreal, Carkner, 23, was signed as a free agent by the Sharks in 2001. Unable to crack a very good San Jose defense during his rookie contract (one season halved by injury), Carkner currently leads Cleveland (AHL) in plus/minus and remains a physical force on the blue line. In the Dan Focht mold, Carkner is a mountain of a man (6’4″, 230lbs) who has worked hard to improve his skating in the minors. He also possesses two other attributes prized by the Penguins: the aforementioned propensity for physical play and he is right handed. His current contract with San Jose expires at the end of the 2003-04 season.

Despite the recent acquisition of Levokari, another hulking defenseman would be a welcome sight on the Penguins blueline. Though the Penguins already have David Koci and Darcy Robinson, two other big, strong, improving young defensemen, playing in Wilkes-Barre. They both may need another season to mature (and hopefully they will both receive that opportunity with the organization).

Nonetheless, a blueline that boasted the likes of Focht, Orpik, Levokari and Carkner would perhaps rank among the largest and most physically punishing unit in the league. Add more offensive minded defensemen like Lupaschuk, Jackman and veteran Dick Tarnstrom and there would be much to look forward to.

At any rate, the player turnover in Pittsburgh is not over. Youth rules and will do so for the next several years on the ice in the Steel City. If there is any play on the ice at all, that is.