Pittsburgh Penguins' Top 5 Post-Lockout Free Agent Signings
A dynamic youth movement proved nothing less than synergism as Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury and a band of magnificent talent turned the city of Pittsburgh back into a hotbed for the game played on a sheet of ice.
Alone, these dynamos could not have won. As important as these young rising talents in the Steel City was a steely resolve from the Lemieux Group, who saved the franchise, and the roster moves of Ray Shero, who has made a number of fantastic signings.
Translated, this means that management saved the team and brought in the pieces necessary to win Stanley Cups. With this quest never ending, fans garbed in Black n' Gold hope their Pens are "Back n' Bold" in 2011.
This offseason, Steve Sullivan headlines a free agent class that will hopefully have the team back on top. In the past, key signings have buoyed the team when they needed only subtle improvements to be the victors of the big tournament from April through June.
With the Stanley Cup already engraved with so many Pittsburgh stars, which of those were the critical signings that allowed such an accomplishment?
The following is a list of the top Penguins free agent signings since the NHL lockout of 2004.
Premium Pens Purchase No. 5: Ruslan Fedotenko
Upon his arrival, Dan Bylsma turned around the struggling Penguins in 2008-09 by implementing an aggressive, fast-skating approach to the game that was in contrast with the methodical strategies of Michel Therrien.
In describing the new style, Bylsma described it by simply naming one of his players, the quick and dangerous Fedotenko.
In previous playoff seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, "Fed" scored 12 goals in 22 games, a torrid pace that helped his squad win the Stanley Cup.
After a hot finish, the Penguins entered the playoffs in 2009 with momentum, but trailed in their series with the Washington Capitals 2-0.
In three consecutive games (including two overtime wins), Fedotenko scored a timely goal. These tallies were enormous to the Pens' cause, coming back to win the series 4-3 after winning each of the aforementioned contests.
He surely was not the former player he had been with the Lightning, failing to ever eclipse 40 points in a Pens uniform. Yet, his style blended well with the teams' strategy, and his veteran leadership could not be undervalued.
He was there to score the big goal when needed and was instrumental to the team's playoff run in 2009.
The trio of games in Washington were a microcosm of his Pittsburgh career; he never really caught fire, but he was a consistently positive presence who came through in the clutch.
Premium Pens Purchase No. 4: Brent Johnson
It's hard to determine what Penguins fans love more about Brent Johnson: the quality he provides as the backup goalie or that he broke Rick Dipietro's face.
For those who abhor fighting in hockey, I must admit that I believe it is far too interwoven into the fabric of the game. Nevertheless, it surely has its place in the NHL, and engaging in fisticuffs leaves you vulnerable at your own discretion. When injuries occur during a fight, one needs to look no further than the injured party themselves.
So, Islanders fans who vilify Johnson need to consider that "Dippy" had it coming!
Johnson's value is far greater than the result of one scrap against a goaltender that would clearly be much better served keeping his helmet on his head.
As the Penguins' backup goaltender in 2009-10, he compiled a 10-6-1 record, playing solidly in net when called onto the ice.
His value was never more evident than during Marc Andre Fleury's struggles to start 2010. During the early weeks of the season, Flower made more like a dead dandelion in being blown away (and blown out) with frequency.
As the netminder gathered himself, Johnson stood tall until Fleury could return composed. His 6-2-1 record early in the season gave the Pens a much needed foundation of success to begin winning after their slow start.
Allowing only 2.17 goals against per game last season, he finished the year 13-5-3.
At 23-11-4, his combined record extrapolated for fun to account for an 82 game-season would be 52-24-7—an 111-point season.
Obviously, that's not a perfect translation. It does showcase Johnson's quality starts in goal, and a reliable backup goaltender cannot be undervalued.
Premium Pens Purchase No. 3: Tie—Matt Cooke and Jarrko Ruutu
One of Ray Shero's first signings after becoming the general manager in 2006 was the addition of Jarrko Ruutu.
He wasn't a goal scorer, didn't have blazing offensive talent and certainly wasn't going to win any games with his stick. However, he could win battles with his shtick.
The consummate carnation of the type of player you want to have on your team but hate to play against, Ruutu was a premium agitator. His ability to incense opponents and take them away from their focus on the game of hockey was priceless.
While Ruutu took penalties, he initiated far more than the share he owed for his aggressive personality.
Backing up his bark with a bite, Ruutu had 50 hits in 20 games during the Penguins' 2008 journey to the Stanley Cup Finals.
When Ruutu departed, he took his skills of agitation, sharp presence and smart play on the ice and locker room charisma with him.
Shero quickly replaced him with Matt Cooke.
Penguins fans realize that Cooke's time in Pittsburgh has been rife with controversy, namely an elbow to the head of Ryan McDonagh that cost Matt the end of last season.
While loyal Pens followers have split opinions on whether the franchise should have released him, he remains on the roster for his valuable skills in helping Pittsburgh be home to the Stanley Cup again in 2011.
In fact, love him or hate him, the Pittsburgh anti-hero also has a knack for scoring goals in addition to his great penalty-killing and agitator roles. In fact, Cooke has scored goals in the double digits during most of his seasons in the NHL.
Premium Pens Purchse No. 2: Mark Eaton
Mark Eaton may be the most underrated Penguin of them all. Ray Shero recognized his talent from having worked with the stud defenseman in Nashville.
Eaton was a hard worker and locker room favorite. In fact, the Penguins so beloved him as a player (deservedly) that he was nominated for the NHL's Bill Masterton Trophy, given to the player that best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Eaton was incredibly smart and precise in his own zone, able to follow the play of the puck and smartly placed himself in the ideal position to break up the offense's momentum. He had an uncanny knack for blocking shots and a mastery of artfully pushing the puck out of the defensive zone.
He was able to push the puck up ice to the Penguin forwards with an effortlessness not often seen at any level of hockey.
Eaton stayed at home, focusing on his defensive responsibilities. He was not often on the score sheet and certainly not a player who would receive accolades for "lighting the lamp."
In a game that is 99.8 percent little things that affect the 0.2 percent that change the scoreboard directly (scoring chances themselves), Eaton's lack of ego, professionalism and defensive prowess were critical to the team's playoff runs.
Premium Pens Purchase No. 1: Sergei Gonchar
Could it be any other?
The obvious selection for the top spot of the countdown, Gonchar's presence in the Pens' lineup was a critical component to consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and a championship night in Detroit.
Playing alongside the bruising Brooks Orpik, Gonchar was a wonderful balance of defense and offense for a team that largely benefited from fast transitions. With such young, deadly talent, getting up ice fast was a huge advantage.
Gonchar's famous passing skills made him as assist machine, and passing to the likes of Crosby and Malkin certainly had to feel like selecting candy.
Sergei's powerful shot, especially from the point on the power play, could turn losses into wins and utterly shift the dynamic of a hockey game.
Who can forget Game 3, tied at two against Detroit, when Gonchar's powerful shot ripped past Chris Osgood to provide the winning tally?
Again and again, Sergei Gonchar's booming shot bounced back out of the net it had just exploded into, leaving goaltenders to look to the heavens in exasperation.
So deadly were Gonchar's passing skills and shot that he was a vital member of the team's power play, and the statistics prove this point.
In his Pittsburgh career, he scored 54 goals and tallied 196 assists. 37 goals and 138 of those assists came with a man advantage.
That's 250 of 322 points. For a team that has recently struggled on special teams, the depleted power play scoring can be traced back to Gonchar....period.
Without him, the Penguins don't win the Stanley Cup. End of story.