Penguins 2006-07 rookie review

By Jason Seidling

The Pittsburgh Penguins initiated five rookies into their lineup during the 2006-07 season. Two of them, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, are finalists for the Calder Trophy.

Malkin, 20, was the second player selected in the 2004 NHL Draft behind the Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin. His NHL debut was first delayed by the failure of his Russian Elite team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, to grant him permission to escape his contract, and then during training camp by the reckless skating of John LeClair.

Malkin missed the first four games of the season recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered as a result of his preseason collision with LeClair, but was dominant upon his return. In his NHL debut on Oct. 18 versus the New Jersey Devils, Malkin scored his first career goal against future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur in a 2-1 loss. Geno, as he is referred to in the locker room, proceeded to score in his first six NHL games.

As is the case with most rookies, Malkin saw his scoring pace fall off during the final quarter of the season. Part of the reason for his slump was the longer schedule and more physical play that the North American game requires, while another reason was the mental fatigue that Malkin had to be experiencing after a whirlwind summer that saw him sign a deal with Metallurg under intense pressure, an escape from Metallurg during a road trip in Finland, his month-long hideout in California while waiting for his letter of resignation to process, and the culture shock he experienced in the United States because of his inability to communicate.

Malkin finished the year with 85 points on 33 goals and 52 assists. He rotated between centering the second line and playing left wing on Sidney Crosby‘s line. In the Penguins’ first-round playoff loss to the Ottawa Senators, Malkin recorded four assists in the five-game series, but did not register a goal.

Malkin will spend the majority of his offseason in his native Russia where he will need to improve his strength training if he wants to take his game to the next level in 2007-08. His natural ability might be the best on the entire Penguins team, Crosby included. If he can get stronger physically and play with the aggression that he displays while representing Russia in international competition, then he could find himself challenging Crosby for the NHL scoring title as early as next season.

Staal, 18, made the Penguins’ opening night roster after the preseason injury suffered by Malkin. It was expected that he would be returned to his junior team in Peterborough once Malkin returned so that the Penguins could save a year on Staal’s free agency clock.

Somebody forgot to let Staal in on this plan as he scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 12 in a 6-5 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. After he registered two short-handed goals in a 5-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 21, Staal left the Penguins no choice but to keep him on the big team.

Staal rewarded the Pens decision by finishing third on the team behind Crosby and Malkin with 29 goals. He added 13 assists to finish seventh on the squad with 42 points. Staal’s plus-16 rating was first on the team. Perhaps even more impressive, he led the league with a rookie-record seven short-handed goals and in shooting percentage at 22.1 percent.

As impressive as his regular season was, Staal took his game to another level during the Stanley Cup playoffs. He tied Crosby for the team lead with three goals during the series against Ottawa, and for a majority of the series he looked like the best player on the ice for Pittsburgh.

A physical specimen at 6’4, Staal figures to only get stronger as he matures into his body. Despite his gaudy numbers, there are facets of his game that Staal can work on. Although he got better as the year went on, his performance on face-offs was unimpressive, which is expected from such a young player. Another area where Staal admittedly struggled at times, was distributing the puck. Once Staal masters the speed of the game, look for his assist figures to increase dramatically.

Kristopher Letang, 19, has seen his stock skyrocket after being chosen in the third round of the 2005 draft. A rare right-handed shot in the Penguins organization, the blueliner surprised many by making the Penguins out of training camp. He was impressive early, scoring his first NHL goal against the Rangers on Oct. 12, and following that up by scoring another goal two nights later in a 5-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Letang’s play began to deteriorate shortly thereafter, and he was a healthy scratch for his final two games in a Penguins uniform. He was sent back to his junior team, the Val-d’Or Foreurs after Pittsburgh’s ninth game so that a year would be saved on his free agency clock. In seven games at the NHL level, Letang recorded two goals and was a -3 while averaging 11:33 of ice time.

Instead of sulking over the demotion, Letang further proved his future value in Pittsburgh by turning in dominating performances at the junior level and during the 2007 World Junior Championship. Given the captaincy after his return to the Foreurs, Letang responded with 14 goals and 38 assists in only 40 games. Letang also dramatically improved his defensive play in the QMJHL, as evidenced by his plus-19 rating. Among the awards he garnered were First-Team All-QMJHL, the Kevin Lowe Trophy as the best defensive defenseman, and the Butch Bouchard Trophy as the best overall defenseman.

Letang was a surprise selection as the captain of Canada’s entry at the World Junior Championship. He did not disappoint, recording six assists in six games, which earned him a spot on the WJC All-Star team. He also received valuable playoff experience as his team advanced to the QMJHL Finals, with Letang contributing 12 goals and 19 assists in 12 games.

With his ability to make a quick entry pass out of the zone, and solid puck handling skills, Letang should have a spot on the big team in training camp. Being a right-handed shot will also work in his favor, as all eight members of the Pens defense core are left-handed. Letang appears to have a solid future converting those back-door feeds from Crosby on the left point during power plays.

Twenty-three-year-old Chris Thorburn was claimed on waivers from the Buffalo Sabres during the days leading up to the season opener. His inspired play sparked the Pens on several occasions, as he finished with three goals and two assists in 39 contests. Thorburn even played the wing on a line with Crosby and Malkin during an early-November West Coast trip, where he scored his first NHL goal.

Always quick to stand up for his more talented teammates, Thorburn provided grit and energy to the fourth-line. Thorburn played a lot of center while coming up through the Sabres system, but he adjusted nicely to playing the wing in Pittsburgh. The emergence of Ronald Petrovicky, and deadline deals that secured the services of Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque limited Thorburn’s playing time during the final two months. He last appeared in a game on Feb. 28.
   
A restricted free agent, Thorburn’s chances of coming back to the black-and-gold will hinge on whether GM Ray Shero elects to bring Petrovicky back. A more cost-effective option as a depth player, the Pens should find a way to include Thorburn into their 2007-08 roster because he plays the type of game that can spark a team during rough stretches.

Big things were expected from Noah Welch after a successful stretch of play at the end of the 2005-06 campaign. Instead Welch struggled in training camp, and saw Letang take the roster spot that was supposed to be his. Welch returned to the NHL when Letang was demoted and recorded a goal and an assist in 22 contests, but struggled with his decision-making.

Welch went on to play a majority of the season in Wilkes-Barre despite the Penguins having a defense that could have used his physical element and passing skills. After continuing to struggle in the minors, Welch was traded to Florida at the trade deadline for veteran winger Gary Roberts. While the Penguins, especially with their weakness on the blue line, might one day regret losing Welch, getting such an inspired performance from Roberts makes this deal a success for the Pittsburgh. 

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