The Penguins' plan was for coach Ivan Hlinka, a native of the
Czech Republic, to take English courses over the summer. Instead
he returned to Prague and listened to language tapes. The move
irked Penguins star Mario Lemieux, who happens to own the team.
Hlinka, who had trouble getting his players' attention as a
rookie coach last season, insists he will reinstate his left-wing
lock system--which was jettisoned last season after Jaromir Jagr
refused to play it--but Hlinka must mend fences, and maybe the
Berlitz wall, to get the Penguins to conform.
Any system will work only to the degree that Lemieux endorses
it, but he should be sold on Hlinka's after seeing how stifling
the disciplined Devils could be in the Eastern Conference
finals. Pittsburgh must be more conscientious now that Jagr's
100-plus points are in Washington, but if Lemieux misses the
unpredictability Jagr provided on the ice and in the dressing
room, he need only look to his new right wing, Stephane Richer.
A two-time 50-goal scorer with the Canadiens more than a decade
ago, Richer went to the Capitals' camp as an unsigned free agent
last season and quit after a day. This time Richer, 35, is
serious. As a rookie Lemieux turned journeyman Warren Young into
a 40-goal man; Richer could net that many if he gets power-play
time and if Lemieux plays 65 games on the same line. The
Penguins also have an explosive line in Martin Straka, Alexei
Kovalev and Robert Lang, dubbed the Arbitration Line after a
summer in which all emerged from hearings with contracts
totaling more than $28 million.
The Penguins' defense was weakened when Janne Laukkanen tore his
right ACL at a bachelor party for Ottawa's Sami Salo in June. A
larger question is goalie Johan Hedberg. A minor leaguer when he
was acquired last March, Hedberg had stunning playoff success
(1.93 GAA). Will he continue his storybook play or join the list
of one-hit wonders?
Lemieux insists that the Penguins without Jagr will be as good as
they were with him, but for the team to walk the walk, Hlinka's
going to have to talk the talk. In clear, forceful English.
When Jaromir Jagr totaled 121 points last year, it marked the
seventh straight season that a Penguin had won the league scoring
title, tying the record held by the Bruins (1968-69 through
'74-75) and the Oilers ('80-81 through '86-87).
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 8 Kovalev, Straka must prove last year wasn't a
DEFENSE 23 With Boughner gone, unit is too soft, lacks
GOALTENDING 22 Teams now have a book on Hedberg
SPECIAL TEAMS 16 Power play will be spectacular; PK needs work
MANAGEMENT 16 Heat's on coach Hlinka, who had shaky first year