High hopes hinge on Mario's return

After stumbling out of the gate last October, the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed poised to make good on virtually everyone's prediction that they'd become, for all intents and purposes, an American Hockey League team with a nicer dressing room.

Owner and erstwhile superstar Mario Lemieux played in only 10 games due to a hip injury and eventually donned a cloak of silence that rendered him invisible for most of the season. Team officials continued to wrestle with local and state officials over funding for a new arena, a battle that continues this summer with attempts by ownership to obtain a license for slot machines, profits from which might fund a new home that would keep the financially wobbly Penguins in Pittsburgh long term.

But a funny thing happened to the Pittsburgh Penguins on the way to on-ice purgatory -- they got better. From Feb. 25 through the end of the season, the Penguins were 12-5-3. A cynic would say they almost got too good for their own good.

The Penguins' 58 points were the lowest total in the league, but they lost out in the draft lottery to another rebuilding team, the Washington Capitals, and hence had to settle for the second pick in the draft, taking the second of the Russian wunderkinds, Evgeni Malkin. While Malkin may be slightly behind top pick Alexander Ovechkin, the Penguins still have an impressive body of young talent from last year's No. 1 pick, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on out. Meanwhile, the Penguins have been surprisingly active in the free-agent market, returning former Penguin star Mark Recchi to the fold and pursuing others, including center Alexei Zhamnov.

General manager Craig Patrick spoke with ESPN.com about the Penguins' strong finish and the expected return Mario in the fall.

ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
Obviously you go into a season with a lot of expectations. We started very, very poorly, so right away we weren't meeting our expectations. But the coaching staff did a great job of getting the guys turned around. Our power play was one of the best in the league from January on. And we had a good stretch at the end of the season. We were really happy with our stretch run. There were some real good signs.

I'd chalk (the slow start) up to a new coach, new system, a lot of new faces and we had a major injury in Mario. But the players did come together. They did learn the system the coaches wanted them to learn. I expect that, as a result, we'll get off to a much better start this season.

I don't buy into the thinking that we had nothing to lose. The guys deserved everything they got. The team won't be completely the same but the core will be the same.

ESPN.com: And Mario?
He'll definitely be playing. It's very, very important (to the makeup of the team) and now with the addition of Mark Recchi, that's another veteran player. They played together awhile ago. They'll probably play together although I'm not the coach so I don't dictate that.

ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation or had the biggest impact on your team?
Certainly, Ryan Malone had an outstanding year for a rookie (43 points, fourth among rookie scorers). I didn't expect it. Some of the staff were trying to convince me during the summer that he could step right in and do it, but it came as a bit of a surprise to me.

Milan Kraft came on strong at the end of the year. He was a big part of our success in the second half of the season. And Ric Jackman, when we got him from Toronto was a perfect fit for our power play (24 points in 25 games as a Penguin, six power play goals). He meshed really well with Dick Tarnstrom. They have a sense of how the other one plays. It's kind of funny how that happens in hockey. You can search all year to find those things and sometimes you never find them. It's a big part of the game to find that kind of chemistry.

Brooks Orpik, was another player, too. There's a bunch of guys, really.

ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
Most of the guys did step it up in the second half of the season. If they come back with the same effort at the start of the season, that's the key.

Mario? I think Mario's proved what he can do for a team. And we're finally going to get Michal Rozsival back from injury, too, he's an important part of our plans.

Having surrendered a host of talented stars in recent years from Jaromir Jagr to Alex Kovalev to Darius Kasparaitis to Martin Straka, the Penguins have a bevy of young prospects the team hopes will yield success down the road including the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, goaltender Fleury who will again make a case for himself as the starting goalie this fall.

ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
We have a number of people, There's Chris Beech, Shane Endicott, Tomas Surovy, Rob Scuderi. Ryan Whitney did a really good job for (Wilkes-Barre) in the playoffs. And then there's our goaltenders. Andy Chiodo and Marc-Andre Fleury, who's going to be a great goalie.

There's no promises been made anybody, except maybe Mario. We're not going to rush (Fleury) along. We're going to be bringing him along as slowly as we can. But he thrives on ice time. He could go back to junior as an over-ager, but we don't see that happening.

ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
The way we finished the season, the most important thing is to start the same way, as well as we finished it. We just have to continue that trend. At the end-of-year meetings with each player, the coaches did a great job in explaining what they had accomplished.

ESPN.com: What is your favorite moment from last season? Do you have one?
I can't say that I do.

ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Probably a few of those (moments) early in the season.

ESPN.com: What activity or destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
This year I'm not doing anything. In years past I like to be on the water. I like boats. Actually, I lived on a boat for seven years here in Pittsburgh. This year there's a lot to be done in the summer. there's a lot to accomplish.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.