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Savran: Take a good look at Penguins before leaping on bandwagon

Sunday, January 07, 2001

If you're talking Superman -- faster than a speeding bullet, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and all that -- leaps of faith are sure to follow.

When Mario Lemieux decided it might be good sporting fun to resume torturing NHL goaltenders, it elevated the Penguins to another level.

Then came the leap of faith -- that they were automatically on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders. But even with Lemieux's astonishing return, are they?

Mario won six scoring championships in his first incarnation as a player, but only one of those Art Ross trophies was dotted with a championship. Jaromir Jagr has won four, but the trophy he most wants to raise above his head would be on the ice dressed in a Penguins' uniform, not a penguin suit. The point is, it takes more than points.

The components for a championship are both obvious and elusive.

You may think you have the proper parts assembled, but they may mix like the Washington Redskins. You just never know.

So, while you may be standing on the ledge, preparing to leap, better make sure these Penguins can fly.

Some observers believe this team needs a top defenseman. A Chris Pronger, Scott Stevens, Derian Hatcher type. Or -- holy unrestricted free agency, Batman! -- a Rob Blake. I happen to think the Penguins' corps of defensemen is solid, pretty deep and reasonably balanced in terms of their styles of play.

Certainly someone with a bit more offensive thunder in his stick would be welcome. But, unless the price for someone like that is reasonable (and have you ever known Craig Patrick to make a deal if it wasn't?), they can live with this group.

A power forward? Yeah, you bet. A vintage Rick Tocchet or Kevin Stevens would do. Doesn't even have to be vintage. A player of that ilk, even if a bit of tread is worn from his tires, would be most welcome.

Where you would play a guy like that is another story. Would you graft him onto the top line and power play?

Or would you place him on the third line, where his grit would pay dividends, even if it meant stunting his goal-scoring?

If you played him with Lemieux and Jagr, you could drop Jan Hrdina to the third line to take advantage of one of his strengths -- actually winning a faceoff once in a blue moon, especially in the defensive zone.

Which leads us to another realistic evaluation. Unless they improve their percentage on draws, a deep playoff run is improbable. It's just one of those little things that becomes monstrously huge in the spring.

What of the third line as presently constructed? Is it capable of doing the yeoman's work that the time-honored and fondly remembered Bob Errey-Troy Loney-Phil Bourque line did so effectively?

Rene Corbet is exactly the kind of Cup-winning player you need there. Josef Beranek hasn't gotten enough credit for his defensive work and penalty killing. Milan Kraft is a work in progress. But when that work is completed, he looks to be a first- or second-line center, not a guy whose fingernails are dirty or collar is blue. Not that he's unwilling, but is he capable of filling that role with so much at stake?

And even if Ivan Hlinka is willing to play a fourth line, will he be able to blend it into the mix, without sacrificing the necessary ice time for the top two units?

And lastly, what about the goaltending? Jean-Sebastien Aubin has never played in a playoff game. Garth Snow has acquitted himself very well thus far, but he has been a career backup. Of course, the same was said of Ron Tugnutt.

Still, the elephant of a question sitting in the middle of the Penguins' locker room remains. Is either guy good enough to be THE guy? I suspect the next two months leading up to the trading deadline will be an audition to determine if they are up to the playoff challenge.

The catch-22 is that since goaltending is the most important ingredient to a championship run, it therefore becomes the most difficult to obtain. If you've got it, you're unlikely to give it up.

My advice would be to stay on the ledge for a while. Look, but don't leap. The Penguins have two superheroes on the same line, something no other team can match. But that isn't always enough.


Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" on Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh.

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