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Savran: Penguins' defense could use offense

Saturday, February 24, 2001

Given what has been an uneven, and unconvincing, audition by Jean-Sebastien Aubin and given Garth Snow's track record, most fans are convinced a goaltender should be at the top of Craig Patrick's shopping list.

If not of top-level pedigree, then at least a goalie who travels in a flight path above those already present. Hard to argue the point. Either of the two Penguins' goaltenders might be able to win a series. Perhaps two. But assuming Mario Lemieux isn't missing in action more often than not, aspirations are loftier this season.

Second on the wish list? A rugged defenseman to push bad guys away from in front of whomever is the last line of defense. Hard to dispute that as well. But I've got something that squeezes just ahead of another Darius Kasparaitis and slightly behind a Patrick Roy replica on the priority list: An offensive defenseman.

What? More offense for what is already a pinball machine of an offense? Frosting on frosting? Yes, and here's why. Despite having six pairs of the most pliable and capable scoring hands in the league, the Penguins aren't taking full advantage of those skills because they seldom get rebound goals unless the forwards convert their own shots.

Imagine having a defenseman who gets shots on net with regularity and authority.

The object isn't necessarily for him to score but to force the goalie to make a quality save. Opponents would be loath to shrink back into a box where those goal-hungry predators congregate. They would have to respect the shot from the point, thereby lessening the congestion around the net.

There is no such danger now, no such respect.

Heading into the weekend, the Penguins have gotten 14 goals from their defensemen, representing 7 percent of their total goal scoring.

However, five of those 14 goals came from Jiri Slegr, who is no longer with the team. Two came off the stick of Ian Moran, who is hurt and won't make his next appearance until April. The defensemen on the active roster have a total of six goals between them.

In contrast, Colorado, before Rob Blake, had 23 goals from its defense.

It's not really about goals. It's about getting the puck to the net, allowing skilled forwards to collect and deposit the rebounds.

The defensemen currently on the roster had a combined 58 assists before last night's game against the Rangers. The defense corps of the New Jersey Devils, the league's highest scoring team, have recorded 85.

Yes, we're talking different personnel and different systems here. But a quick and accurate pass to set up a scoring opportunity or get a teammate up ice with speed or a shot on goal with some steam on it, enhances the supreme talents of the forwards already assembled.

Such a weapon also would bolster the power play, taking pressure off Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr on the half-boards, where they usually set up.

And, even though Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka can skate like the wind to cover a mistake, they are still offensive players thinking offense first.

Plus, if you add an offensive defenseman, the trickle-down effect would make your second power play that much stronger.

Currently, there is no second unit because five of the Penguins' top six forwards are on the first power-play group. And, special teams being what they are in the playoffs, a contribution from a second power-play unit can make the difference in a series, especially when a penalty is called when the number one line is on the ice.

Admittedly, there are several important connected issues I haven't addressed. Such as this player's defensive commitment. I'm not talking about a one-way player. That would be counterproductive. And who's available, what you would have to give up to get him, and how that might change the components and chemistry of your lineup.

And perhaps most critical, if Lemieux's back limits his availability and capabilities for the playoffs, you could bring in Rob Blake and Chris Pronger and it wouldn't be enough.

Even without Lemieux, the Penguins wouldn't be a desired playoff opponent. But without him, they're not capable of being much more than they've been the past two years ... two rounds and out.

With him in the lineup for every playoff game, at or near his other-worldly peak, along with better goaltending and with this as yet unidentified booming shot (preferably right-handed) from the point, it's not unreasonable to believe they can be much, much more.

Stan Savran hosts a nightly sports talk show from 8-9 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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