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Penguins redrawing blueprint for success

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / November 10, 2009

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Ryan Whitney was Pittsburgh’s second-best puck-moving defenseman behind Sergei Gonchar last season. Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill formed the shutdown pair that saw heavy action in the Stanley Cup final against the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, and Johan Franzen.

Tonight, when the defending Cup champs visit TD Garden, Whitney ($4 million annual cap hit, traded to Anaheim for winger Chris Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangradi), Scuderi ($3.4 million annually, signed with Los Angeles as an unrestricted free agent), and Gill ($2.25 million per year, signed with Montreal as an unrestricted free agent) will not be part of the Pittsburgh blue line.

The top-four defensemen are missed. But they are not compatible with Pittsburgh’s unique blueprint.

“You don’t replace a 6-foot-8 defenseman with the reach of an octopus,’’ said Tom Fitzgerald, assistant to general manager Ray Shero. “And Scuds, he earned that contract that he got. He deserves it. We just couldn’t pay him. We couldn’t. It’s just one of those situations where you’d love to have everybody back.’’

They are gone because Shero, Fitzgerald, assistant GM Jason Botterill, and the rest of the Pittsburgh front office believes the following: invest between the pipes and up the middle. It’s a model that the Bruins might follow next season if they re-sign Marc Savard. That way, Savard could be backed up by Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci at center, with Tim Thomas manning the crease.

But Pittsburgh’s four studs are even better. The Penguins roll out centers Sidney Crosby (No. 1 overall pick in 2005), Evgeni Malkin (No. 2 in 2004), Jordan Staal (No. 2 in 2006), and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (first overall in 2003). Considering their combined talent, it’s not hard to see why Shero and Co. consider the foursome the team’s foundation.

“We made our bed with those guys,’’ Fitzgerald said. “They’re pretty good guys to build around.’’

Call it luck that the Penguins had so many high-round picks. But give them a stick salute for sticking with Fleury when he struggled as a teenage NHL puck stopper, believing in Malkin after he flopped in the 2008 Cup finals, and convincing Staal to accept third-line centerman duties. Credit them for drafting and developing back-end talent such as Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, which allowed them to deal Whitney for help on the wing and let Scuderi and Gill walk.

Above all, fear them as they make another run at the Cup. Fitzgerald, formerly the director of player development, shifted from the front office to the bench to serve as an assistant to coach Dan Bylsma after Michel Therrien was fired. From ice level, Fitzgerald got an up-close look at the organization’s elite talent.

“Those four in particular, they drive the bus,’’ Fitzgerald, the Billerica native and former Bruin, said of Crosby ($8.7 million annual cap hit), Malkin ($8.7 million), Staal ($4 million), and Fleury ($5 million). “They come to the rink and it’s business. They lead by example with their work ethic in practice. I’m telling you, last year, being on the ice with these guys, it’s amazing how hard they work. Playing as long as I did and not playing with superstars like that - I had a cup of coffee with a few of them, like Mats [Sundin] in Toronto and [Joe] Sakic and [Peter] Forsberg out in Colorado - boy, when your best player is your hardest-working player, and you’ve got your three centermen and your goalie, who comes out early and stays on late, then it’s hard not to follow. They’ve done that. That’s what they do. They’re not only talented, but they’re driven, good leaders.’’

Entering tonight’s game, the Penguins are tied with the Capitals atop the Eastern Conference with 24 points. Goligoski, a healthy scratch in Game 7 in last year’s final, has 13 points, tied for fifth among NHL defensemen. Fleury, also making a bid for the Canadian Olympic roster, is 10-4-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage. Crosby, who could serve as Team Canada’s captain, is scoring at a point-per-game clip (9-7 -16 in 17 games).

“When you’re impressed with players like him and you wonder what makes him successful, it’s pretty simple,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “They compete as hard in practice as they do in games. They compete hard in all areas of the game. When you’ve got the talent to go with it, it makes you a superstar in the league.’’

Like they did last season, the Penguins are looking for their grinders to complement their studs. They’ve been getting solid contributions from bottom-six forwards such as Craig Adams, Mike Rupp, and Pascal Dupuis, although they’re still seeking more from Kunitz (only three goals).

Despite all that, the Penguins aren’t pleased with their game. Tonight’s game is the last stop in a four-game swing in which the Penguins have lost their last two matches: 5-2 to Scuderi and the Kings last Thursday, and a 5-0 setback to the Sharks Saturday. While the Bruins recently snapped an 0-for-20 power-play slump, the Penguins are on an 0-for-21 man-advantage skid. And like the Bruins, who remain without Marc Savard and Milan Lucic, the Penguins are missing some heavy artillery in Malkin (shoulder), Gonchar (wrist), Letang (upper body), Maxime Talbot (shoulder), and Tyler Kennedy (groin).

For all their talent, the Penguins are familiar with adversity. On Feb. 15, 2009, the Penguins, 27-25-5 and out of the top eight in the East, fired Therrien and replaced with him Bylsma. The former AHL coach helped turn things around as Pittsburgh qualified for a playoff spot. But in the first round, they faced Game 6 elimination against Philadelphia, down, 3-0, in the second period. That’s when Talbot challenged Daniel Carcillo to a fight. Carcillo, who led the NHL with 324 penalty minutes in 2007-08, delivered a convincing beatdown, but Talbot’s willingness to go helped spark the Penguins to rally in Game 6, win Game 7, and dispatch Washington and Carolina en route to their Cup showdown against the Red Wings.

In the final, the Penguins dropped the first two games, but refused to buckle. In Game 7, Talbot scored both goals. Adams, on the game’s final play, applied enough pressure to Nicklas Lidstrom, forcing the Red Wings defenseman to hurry his shot and allow Fleury to scramble to his right and make the Cup-saving stop.

Such moments in their recent history should help the Penguins power through their injuries. Once Malkin returns, the Penguins will be back to their three-line game plan.

“They understand the situation,’’ Fitzgerald said of Crosby, Malkin, and Staal. “They understand that for us to be a successful organization and continue to be successful, this is what it is. This is exactly what we’re going to be. We’ve always talked about moving one of them to the wing. Does it make us a stronger team? It doesn’t make us a weaker team. But we feel our strength is right up the middle. All three guys are not only buying in, but thriving, understanding, and pushing each other. It’s fun.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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