The only way is up!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- The collection of big name, high-priced free agents they stockpiled in the off-season isn't paying off like they'd hoped (unless they were hoping for 12th place and the worst home record in the Eastern Conference).

They're not sure if they can afford to pay their best goalie for a whole year, they dress as many as nine rookies on any given night, they play in a dump, they might be leaving town and owner/superstar Mario Lemieux is out of the lineup with a heart ailment.

Why would anyone want to coach the Penguins?

Simple, there's nowhere to go but up.

'A LOT OF YOUNG GUYS'

"The second half has to be better than the first, we hope," said Michel Therrien, 11 games into his run as bench boss in Pittsburgh.

"We have a lot of young guys and those young guys have to adjust to the NHL, it's a new level for them. But I know eventually they'll get to where I want them to be. We've played some good hockey lately. I like what I see from our team."

The 42-year-old, promoted after guiding Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate to a 21-1-2-1 start, is only 3-4-3 (before last night) since taking over from Ed Olczyk. It's been slow going, but a complete overhaul in mid-season is never easy.

"Definitely," said the former Habs coach. "I've been in that position before and it's a tough position to come in in mid-season like this, especially in a year like this (compressed because of the Olympic break).

"You have game after game after game, we don't have much time to practise. I remember the first time I got hired in Montreal it was almost the same situation, it was an Olympic year. That made it tough.

"What helps me is I coached 11 of these guys in Wilkes-Barre so I know what they're capable of doing. I know what I should expect from them and half the team knows what to expect from me."

They expected a stern disciplinarian who isn't afraid to get right in your face if he isn't happy with your game.

"I'm demanding. I know what they're capable of doing and I'm demanding on work ethic and I'm demanding on performance. It's pretty simple. I'm assuming all coaches are demanding. I'm no different from the rest."

The first things Therrien wanted to change upon his arrival were Penguins' commitment to fitness and systems play.

"Structure," he said. "Make sure guys know where to go when they don't have the puck and try to have some structure when we have the puck, too.

"The other thing was conditioning - we needed to work on that. Our team has looked a lot better in a month."

They're still a shell of the powerhouse that won two Stanley Cups, but with Sidney Crosby, netminder Marc-Andre Fleury and draft pick Evgeni Malkin waiting in the wings, many of the building blocks are in place.

SEEING PROGRESS

Mark Recchi is seeing progress.

"We focus on the detail things every day and our conditioning has gotten a lot better on and off the ice," he said.

"We're going in the right direction. We're trying to build a foundation here to be a successful franchise again. We have some great young players and we have to make sure they get pushed in the right direction and taught the right things. Once we do that we'll start becoming a good team because we do have some unbelievable young players here."

OOPS: Monday's Game On noted that Ray Whitney is playing in Pittsburgh. He's actually in Carolina. Ryan Whitney is the new Penguin.


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