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Keeping It In House

As the rest of the hockey world wondered this off-season how the Penguins would address their chronic lack of scoring wingers, general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma had other concerns.

They both believed the team would score its share of goals but needed to improve defensively if it was to get back to the Stanley Cup Final.

To that end, Shero set the tone by committing $9 million per season to sign free agent defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek and adding gritty winger Arron Asham late in the summer. The only nod to giving Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin more skill to work with up front was the signing of well-traveled Mike Comrie to a league-minimum contract.

But 10 games into the 2010-11 season, it’s the Penguins’ in-house talent that has played a major role in getting the whole plan off to a good start.

Michalek (shoulder) played only three of those first 10 games; Asham (shoulder) didn’t make his season debut until late October; and Comrie had a largely ineffective start and was still looking for his first goal as November approached. But the Penguins nevertheless earned a share of first place in the NHL’s overall standings thanks to the contributions of center Mark Letestu, defensemen Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang and goaltender Brent Johnson.

Martin was taking advantage of some new-found freedom to join the rush and make plays – sometimes living a bit too much on the edge – but October underscored once again how important it is for  the young players already in the system to show steady improvement.

The 25-year-old Letestu, signed as a free agent three and half years ago, was among the NHL rookie scoring leaders and was receiving significant second line minutes with Malkin and Comrie after displaying his usual smarts and a surprisingly lethal wrist shot. Bylsma and Shero have some interesting personnel decisions to make when Jordan Staal returns to the lineup, and one of those is where to slot Letestu, who will be staying with the team.

Letang, 23 and a third-round pick five years ago, was second among NHL defensemen in scoring and on a pace to record 73 points – more than double his career-best 33 points two seasons ago. He was playing more minutes per night, using his skating ability and strength to greater effect and contributing more offensively at even strength than any of the team’s defensemen. He had also made a significant improvement in his ability to keep his shots on goal – a major problem in the past.

The 25-year-old Goligoski, a second-round pick six years ago, joined Martin as one of the top five scoring defensemen in the league while seeing a major increase in ice time and responsibility as a rover up front on a revamped power play. That power play was still a work-in-progress, stuck in the middle of the NHL in terms of success rate, but Goligoski was displaying a confidence that will go a long way toward his ability to join Letang in offsetting the loss of Sergei Gonchar’s power-play prowess. Still  a ways to go, but so far, so good.

Johnson, of course, is no youngster, but with Bylsma showing some impatience with Fleury, Johnson was playing his best hockey as a Penguin. The bottom line? The Penguins had the puck more, were getting to the offensive zone on the forecheck (they led the NHL in hits) and found themselves in the rare position of ranking third in the league in shots allowed and fifth in the league in goals-against average.

The Penguins were better defensively, getting huge scoring production from the back line and winning. And it wasn’t simply about what they changed but what they held onto.

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