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Upward mobility in Pittsburgh?

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By Matt Canamucio, Sports Network NHL Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If there is an NHL season in 2004-05, keep an eye on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now, don't take that as a "Pittsburgh will shock the world and make a deep playoff run" prediction. Just keep an eye on them. A safe forecast is that the team will make upward strides in the near future, and that won't be extremely difficult considering the meager 58 points they recorded in 03-04. The Pens, who had the services of Mario Lemieux for only 10 games, won just five times in the first two months and tumbled from there. But the fact that the Penguins were so miserable a season ago is not the only reason to believe they can take strides in the right direction. The team has already made a significant acquisition in the form of the aging, but able Mark Recchi, and has other moves rumored to be in the works. Recchi returns to the city where his National Hockey League career began after spending 1992-2003 logging two tours with the Philadelphia Flyers and a stop in Montreal. At the age of 36, he is coming off a season in which he was the leading scorer -- 26g, 49a -- on a Flyers club that won the Atlantic Division and came within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. The Kamloops, British Columbia native injects a dynamic the Pens sorely lacked last season, offensive leadership. With Lemieux sidelined most of the year, the team was without a veteran catalyst to hang its hat on, evident by the fact that defenseman Dick Tarnstrom was its leading scorer with a mere 52 points. And if general manager Craig Patrick's prospective plans come to fruition, Pittsburgh could go from having no offensive torchbearer to several. Likely waiting for the collective bargaining dust to settle -- whenever the heck that will be -- the Penguins have been linked to other high profile free agents like Alexei Kovalev and Alexei Zhamnov, as well as centers Jason Wiemer and Jozef Stumpel. These are all not only recognizable names, but players with different aspects to lend to the Penguins' rebuilding process. While it's unlikely the team can land all four, merely the prospect of adding a sniper (Kovalev), a pair of playmakers (Zhamnov and Stumpel) and a defensive forward (Wiemer) to a team that had no direction is encouraging. The Penguins bolstering their offense and improving upon their 190 goals would be a start, but they need to keep the puck out of the net as well. Much of that will likely hinge on the performance of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the top-overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Fleury began last season with the Penguins, and was brilliant at times despite not having a ton of aid in front of him. He recorded a 4-14-2 mark and 3.64 goals-against average in 22 games before being returned to his Junior team in February. Head coach Ed Olczyk has a depth chart in net that runs three deep -- Sebastien Caron and Andy Choido being the other two -- but Fleury heads in as the clear frontrunner. In addition to Fleury, the Pens have a stable of youngsters to be bullish on as well. Forward Ryan Malone splashed onto the scene and finished fourth among NHL rookies with 22 goals and 43 points, and the hard-nosed Brooks Orpik is coming off an impressive first year too. No. 2 overall pick Evgeni Malkin is in the pipeline, and the team has several prospects either in the minors or below it's waiting on. Of course, the biggest factor for the team's immediate success will be the physical status of Lemieux, who hasn't been healthy for a sustained period of time since the first year of his comeback.

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