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Pittsburgh Penguins swept up by post-Stanley Cup changes

PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby understood the Pittsburgh Penguins wouldn't begin this season with the same team that finished two victories away from winning the Stanley Cup only 17 weeks ago.

Free agency made that an inevitability. So did the salary cap, and the need by some players to go elsewhere to seek out the roles they felt best suited them. Change is inevitable in sports, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were not spared the inevitability of change.

But this many changes, brought on not only by personnel movement but by injury?

When the Penguins begin the new season Saturday in Stockholm against the Ottawa Senators, four months to the day since they lost Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals to Detroit, they will be enveloped by change.

Changes for the better? There may be some of those as younger defenceman Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski begin playing bigger, more prominent roles. Changes for the worse? The Penguins may be worrying there are far more of those than anticipated.

"It's going to be motivating for sure, but it's done," Crosby said of trying to avenge last season's finals defeat. "There's not a lot of thought about it any more. It's a new season and a clean slate."

So clean is the Penguins' slate that Crosby is expected to begin the new season with Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko as linemates. Neither of the longtime NHL forwards was with the team last season.

Marian Hossa, the all-star forward who finally gave Crosby a linemate talented enough to take full advantage of his playmaking skill? He turned down nearly US$50 million over seven seasons from the Penguins to play with Detroit for slightly more than $7 million in one season.

Just like that, Hossa turned his back on the team and the star with which he thrived, effectively telling the Penguins he had a better chance to win the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings.

"It's over and done with," Crosby said. "We're going to move on."

Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney won't move on, at least not immediately. The Penguins' top two defenceman are injured and out - Gonchar with a dislocated shoulder until March, Whitney following foot surgery until at least January. Gonchar is to have surgery Thursday.

Coupled with the departures of enforcer Georges Laraque, agitator Jarkko Ruutu, tough-guy forward Gary Roberts and reliable scorer Ryan Malone, those are numerous changes for the Penguins to absorb in such short time.

What hasn't changed: Crosby, now 21, is arguably the NHL's best player and Evgeni Malkin, now 22, is close behind. Crosby probably would have won a second consecutive scoring title last season if he hadn't missed nearly 40 per cent of it with a high ankle sprain. In his absence, Malkin nearly did win that title with 47 goals and 106 points, finishing second to Washington's Alex Ovechkin.

"The important thing for us is we do have a lot of guys who went through that (playoff) stretch and who have played together for a while, so I think the new guys coming in are going to fit in nicely," Crosby said.

Jordan Staal, whose offensive production went down after returning to his natural position of centre - he went from 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07 to 12 in 2007-08 - is expected to go back to the wing on Malkin's line. Petr Sykora may be the other wing on that No. 2 line, one led by last season's NHL No. 2 scorer.

Matt Cooke, who may be teamed with Pascal Dupuis on the No. 3 line centred by Max Talbot, will be the agitator-type forward. The new enforcer is Eric Godard, who played last season with Calgary.

"We brought in Cooke and Godard, and those guys are tough," Crosby said. "We're a skilled team for the most part, but we know that in order to win you have to have some of that grit."

Still, much of the toughness is gone from a team that - surprise - allowed the third-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference but is missing Ruutu, Laraque and Roberts. To compensate, the Penguins will need a big contribution from Brooks Orpik, who signed a $22.5 million, six-year contract during the off-season, and - here's another surprise - Darryl Sydor.

Sydor was banished to the bench for all but four games during the playoff run, but becomes a valuable piece again with Whitney and Gonchar out.

Marc-Andre Fleury, arguably the best goalie in the playoffs, is back with Dany Sabourin behind him. Sabourin was the No. 3 goalie most of last season. Ty Conklin did not return.

"We've still got a great core," Crosby said.

There's also this challenge for a team that went from being last in the Eastern Conference to Stanley Cup finalist in two years. Since the NHL expanded in 1967, only one team - Edmonton in 1984 - won the Stanley Cup the season after losing in the finals.

One reason is the extra wear and tear of a two-month playoff run that ends in disappointment rather than a victory parade can take a toll, especially when the following season rolls around so soon.

Fedotenko and Satan, for example, haven't played a game that counted in six months; many of their new teammates have gone through the last 12-plus months with only two full months, July and August, that contained no hockey.

"But it's a young team, and last year they made it to the finals, and I think they still have an upside," Satan said.

For the Penguins, who won 94 games the last two seasons after winning only 100 the previous four seasons, that's what has changed the least: They still have Crosby and Malkin.

"There are not too many players like that," Satan said. "I've never had a chance to play with centres of that quality."



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