More expected out of Penguins

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Through no real fault of his own, ex-Leaf Ed Olczyk is coming to a first-guy-fired list near you.

In 2003-04, his first season behind the bench after leaving the TV booth, Olczyk's Pittsburgh Penguins finished dead last, which was great for the draft but not so hot for job security.

Olczyk has inherited radically heightened expectations for a Penguins team that now includes a healthy Mario Lemieux, future franchise player Sidney Crosby and a host of top-drawer veterans including Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, John LeClair and Ziggy Palffy.

"We feel we have a team that can compete for the Cup right away," Lemieux re-iterated this week. "It has been a great turnaround for us."

But what happens to the coach who can't make those heady predictions come true?

Lemieux turns 40 on Oct. 5 when the Penguins open their season in New Jersey. If the Pens are to give him his third Stanley Cup, it will have to be this season or next.

No pressure.

To make matters a little dicier, the Pens have a conundrum in goal where Marc-Andre Fleury has a contract that jumps to an astronomical $4 million US a year should he play 25 or more games. Jocelyn Thibault, acquired during the Penguins' rapturous off-season, never has proven himself the mainstay that Fleury will soon be.

Having Lemieux in the lineup is, of course, a wondrous advantage. After extensive treatment and rehab of his injured hip, he has moved and skated well this fall. But for a coach, having Lemieux on the bench is a bit like bringing your girlfriend's father on a date.

They don't give you a long leash in Pittsburgh.

General manager Craig Patrick has shown no hesitancy in tying the can to coaches he thinks are underperforming. Olczyk is the Pens' third coach in five seasons and seventh in 10.

Now throw in the chaos of the new rule changes, the question of an undistinguished defence and a lack of familiarity that comes with a such a reconstituted lineup. Olczyk's first job should be to comb the help wanted ads in The Hockey News.

But in Pittsburgh, Olczyk's reputation is entirely untarnished by his debut season. He is a hard worker who often gets to the rink before dawn and he could talk the ears off a rabbit. He is plugged into every asset and micromanages. He can be very edgy.

"I'm going to be the same person, I can't be anybody else," Olczyk said of the drastically changed scenario he walks into.

"I'm still going to get upset, I'm still going to make guys feel good about themselves when things aren't going well."

Lemieux is just one of 20 players who have access to the coach, Olczyk is a firm believer in player input.

"His biggest benefits are his passion and his energy level," Patrick said.

Certainly, Olczyk's reputation around the league is an asset.

"I've played against him and played with him for two years in Chicago," Thibault said. "He was a great veteran, a great guy to be around."

"What I've heard from the guys is everybody likes him and he's an honest guy," Gonchar said. "If you play hard for him, he treats you well. It's what every player wants.

Considering the team, Olczyk managed the previous version of the Penguins quite nicely. It was a collection of players who were at turns too green (Fleury and Konstantin Koltsov) and too old (Kelly Buchberger and Mike Eastwood). The Penguins endured an 0-17-0-1 skid but finished with a 12-5-3 run.

But can Olczyk, who proved himself a pretty good coach for a bad team, rise to the level of his talent?

"Our skill level is very high. The last time we played we had some skilled guys but we didn't have enough to make the difference," he said. "Now we have difference-makers."


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