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The Penguins' kids are all right

It could take another few years, but look for the Pittsburgh Penguins to become one of the dominant teams in the Eastern Conference. The once-bankrupt franchise has a prospective new owner. The roster is loaded with exciting young players who should thrive in the NHL. Even hope has been restored.

Sound a little familiar?

The Penguins, who have the NHL's second-lowest payroll at $35.5 million, were forced to endure years of money problems but are headed in the right direction. They're evolving sooner than expected and could be the league's biggest surprise this season. Check back around 2008 or so, and they could look like today's Buffalo Sabres.

It starts with Sidney Crosby, but it hardly ends with Sid the Kid. Evgeni Malkin arrived from Russia and wasted little time getting comfortable. He had four goals and six points in his first four games and has been bumped up to the first line with Crosby.

Malkin might not be the top rookie on his team. Jordan Staal, who turned 18 last month, already had three short-handed goals going into the weekend. Many believed the Penguins would take a peek at him early in the season before sending him back to his junior team in Peterborough, but they might keep him. Rookie contracts don't kick in until the 10th game. Staal would play Game 10 on Wednesday, and after that he must stay in the pros.

There are risks in keeping Staal. It would start the clock on free agency, which means he would be unrestricted at 25, right around the time he's approaching his prime. Crosby and Malkin will likely already be pocketing hefty salaries. Staal is centering the second line and has been their top penalty killer. He might not be the Pens' top rookie, either.

Pittsburgh has been very impressed with 19-year-old defenseman Kris Letang, who has provided a major boost to the power play. He's likely headed back to juniors, but he gives the Pens four players from the 20-and-under set. You can't help but feel good about the future of the franchise in Pittsburgh, if the Pens stay there.

Rumors have been swirling for months, if not years, that the Pens are headed elsewhere -- Hamilton, Ont.? -- unless a new arena is built to replace the rundown Igloo. Until that gets worked out, fans should kick back and enjoy.

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Jagr searches for shot

Jaromir Jagr remains among the NHL scoring leaders, but he believes his bum shoulder has hampered his shooting ability and made him less effective. So what does that mean, that he's the best player in the league but not by as much?

Jagr had 53 goals and 123 points last season. He had just two goals going into a four-game Western road trip, including the one he scored on his first shift of the season. At times, he's appeared slow while getting bumped around by players (Darcy Tucker last week) he would have run over in the past.

"I'll tell you what, when I start scoring goals, I'm going to look a lot quicker," Jagr told reporters in New York. "I can't [expletive] score. My shot is like I'm dumping it in. It's just not there."

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Old money

I almost drove off the road upon hearing ex-GM Bob Clarke cite burnout as his reason for resigning from the Flyers. Burnout from what? Philly is a tough sports town, but Clarke had a free pass for years.

Clarke's strength was spending owner Ed Snider's money, which made his gig a breeze. He had a terrible record in the draft and wasn't much better when it came to trades. He once gave up Peter Forsberg and half the farm to get Eric Lindros.

The word from Philly had Clarke stepping down because he grew a conscience. Gee, who knew? Apparently, Clarke confessed to team President Peter Luukko that he had problems firing people and had grown tired of the daily grind.

"It had just run its course with me," Clarke said. "I don't know what happened to me."

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Gretzky hangs tough

Wayne Gretzky was beginning to feel the heat from the Coyotes' slow start, but he's not ready to remove himself from coaching duties just yet. However, it could happen if Phoenix continues to be a league laughingstock.

Jeff Shumway, second in command to owner Jerry Moyes, said Gretzky and Mike Barnett are safe for the foreseeable future. Uh oh. It's often a sign that someone's about to get fired. Gretzky would resign before he was forced out.

"I'll do anything that will help us win," Gretzky said. "At this point in time, I don't think that's the issue for me to even address. We just need a good solid effort out of everybody."

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He's the Manny

Goalie Manny Fernandez is the biggest reason for the Wild's early success. He's playing much better now that he's no longer sharing the net with Dwayne Roloson.

Fernandez entered the weekend leading the league with a 1.53 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage.

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Quotable

Phoenix goalie Mike Morrison, since demoted to the AHL, on the Coyotes' struggles: "At least we're still healthy individuals that have moms and dads that love us. That's about the only positive thing going for us right now."

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Around the boards

*Look for the Oilers to give veteran defenseman Steve Staios a contract extension that could be worth $7.5 million for three years or $10 million over four.

*Jay McKee came back from a knee injury and played a grand total of 75 seconds before breaking his hand while -- what else? -- blocking a shot. He's out another four to six weeks. The shot came from none other than Rory Fitzpatrick, now with the Canucks.

*Brendan Morrison on the crowd in Chicago, which was announced at 11,642 for a game against the Canucks: "It's embarrassing really, a great hockey city like this. To come in here and have it one-third full or half-full and the worst atmosphere in the league is disheartening." Obviously, he hasn't been to Long Island.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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