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Thursday, August 31, 2000
Updated: September 1, 4:40 PM ET
A Closer Look: Pittsburgh Penguins

By Brian A. Shactman
ESPN.com

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  • The Penguins might have had a .500 record last year, but for several reasons, their season was way above average. ESPN.com takes a Closer Look at the Penguins and what the team needs to improve for the 2000-01 season.

    Season Review: Cap killers
    Jaromir Jagr
    Jagr
    From bankruptcy to solvency doesn't really have much to do with hockey, does it? Well, Mario Lemieux assumed ownership of a team in Chapter 11, and what ensued was a competitive season, culminating with a first-round upset of the Washington Capitals. In the process, the city of Pittsburgh rallied around the team, and supposedly attendance and playoff advancement helped the Pens at least break even financially.

    On the ice, discussion always begins and ends with Jaromir Jagr. The $10-million man missed 19 games with various injuries -- at one point, he had blood surgically drained from his bruised thigh -- but still won the league scoring title with 42 goals and 96 points. He's by far the most exciting offensive player in hockey. What gets lost in his accomplishments is that he gets mauled every night, however, Jagr does more with one hand on his stick -- the other trying to throw guys off his back -- than most do with two.

    After Jagr, there was a smattering of encouraging and discouraging stories on offense. Alexei Kovalev's 26 goals cannot place '99-00 in the breakout category, but still, that total eclipses his previous career high of 23. And his 66 total points also were a career best. Again, Jan Hrdina might not have made headlines but in 12 fewer games than his rookie season, he had four more points (46).

    On the negative side, Martin Straka's 20 goals fell 15 shy of '98-99. And although Aleksey Morozov, the team's No. 1 pick in 1995, has become a better two-way player, he still hasn't come close to fulfilling expectations.

    The goalie situation was somewhat of a weakness last season -- at least until Ron Tugnutt entered the scene. Jean-Sebastien Aubin (2.58 GAA and .914 save percentage) started the bulk of the games (51) and actually played well in the absence of the beleauguered Tom Barrasso. Barrasso and Peter Skudra both had below par numbers, so Tugnutt's arrival in a trade that sent Barrasso to Ottawa made a solid tandem of Tugnutt and Aubin. During the regular season, Tugnutt went 4-2 for the Penguins (2.41 GAA, .924 save percentage), and in the playoffs, his 1.77 GAA and .945 save percentage were a huge reason the Pens performed as well as they did. His 32-save shutout in Game 1 against the Capitals set the tone.

    The Open Market: Do well with what ya have
    Tugnutt's gone for the 2000-01 season after he signed a $10-million contract with Columbus to backstop the expansion franchise through the lean years. So, that means goaltending is a major issue for the Pens.

    FREE AGENCY
    Key unsigned free agents:
    Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Peter Skudra.

    Signings/offseason acquisitions:
    Matthew Barnaby, Josef Beranek, Dennis Bonvie, Rene Corbet, Trent Cull, Janne Laukkanen, Aleksey Morosov, Billy Tibbetts.

    And that's before factoring the fact that both Aubin and Skudra remain unsigned. Aubin is a restricted free agent, who is watching closely what happens with Brian Boucher's contract standoff in Philly. Reportedly, Aubin's agent feels the goalie's value is comparable to Boucher, who is asking for well over a million dollars a year. For a guy who made less than $350,000 last season that means both sides are far apart. And Skudra, an unrestricted free agent, remains in the Pittsburgh area, waiting for the best offer he can find.

    Those are the biggest holdout questions.

    In terms of acquisitions, the most discussed signing was Billy Tibbetts, 25, who has a criminal record. The Penguins are giving the troubled forward a second chance, but it's anyone's guess when or if he'll ever help the big club.

    Other than that, a smattering of re-signings characterized the offseason for the fiscally conscious Penguins.

    How to improve: Fill holes when possible
    Depth and goaltending will be an issue for the Penguins. Losing someone like Tyler Wright, a gritty forward, means one less guy who'll do anything to win. Those guys, regardless of point production, are tough to replace. If Morosov and Straka have above-average years, while Kovalev and Robert Lang continue to produce at current levels, the Penguins should be able to maintain on offense.

    That's vital not only for offensive balance but also for Jagr's health. His talent is enough for the Penguins to ride for a while. But at some point, if teams don't have to worry about any other lines, his body will break down from all the concentrated abuse. If that happens, the Penguins aren't much more than an expansion team. He's that good and that valuable.

    Aubin showed he has the potential to be a No. 1 goalie, but by no means is that a sure bet. How long did Patrick Lalime last in Pittsburgh? Obviously, that's not a perfect parallel, but the fact remains that if Aubin isn't the real deal, the Penguins are in real trouble. It remains to be seen whether GM Craig Patrick goes out and signs one of the vets available -- don't expect Barrasso to return.

    If the goalie situation isn't enough of a wild card, don't forget that this will be Ivan Hlinka's first season as the official head coach. He is one of two non-North American born first-year NHL coaches -- Alpo Suhonen in Chicago is the other. The Pens are a Euro-centric team, so who really knows how it all will work out. But because Jagr's happy about it, that's a good start.

    Overall, this past season could be a good template to follow: Hope Jagr plays well and stays healthy long enough to get to the trade deadline, and then let Patrick pull some more magic. Remember, he practically reshaped the team for last spring's playoff drive, and most of his moves paid off.

    Brian A. Shactman is the NHL editor for ESPN.com.