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NHL season preview 2015-16: Three big questions facing the Pittsburgh Penguins

NHL season preview 2015-16: The Pens big questions

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

1. What are the expectations for Phil Kessel's first season in Pittsburgh?

The Penguins highest profile move of the off-season was to bring in the productive but somewhat controversial Phil Kessel via trade from the Toronto Maple leafs. Kessel played just above a point per game from 2011-14 (scoring 94 goals and 120 assists for 214 points in 212 games) before having a somewhat disappointing 61 points (25g+36a) in 82 games last season.

Most pundits seem to be projecting Kessel, at age 28 on Friday, to easily surpass his career single-season high in goals of 37. Which may not be terribly fair considering only 4 players league-wide scored more goals last season. Playing wing to Sidney Crosby will bring high expectations externally, however the Pens and Kessel seem positioned to deflect the stress.

Preseason scoring doesn't mean too much, but Kessel and Crosby have found instant chemistry, with Kessel notching 3 goals and an 2 assists in 3 games.

Kessel in preseason action as a Penguin. (USA Today - Charles LeClare)

Without putting a round number on it, Kessel should be capable of making a run for 40 goals provided he and Crosby remain healthy. One stat that should be music to Pens fans' ears? Kessel with 7th in the NHL last year in power play shooting. Adding that to an occasionally passive group that fancies a lot of passing should do a lot of good for player and team.

2. Can David Perron and/or Chris Kunitz bounce back?

In the last 56 games of the season, the once proud and productive Kunitz managed a measly 4 even strength goals. Perron, after starting his Penguins career via a mid-season trade on a 9 goal in 15 game tear, ended going goal-less in his last 17 games.

Perron and Kunitz are the two highest compensated natural left-wingers on the team, and with big guns like Crosby-Kessel and Evgeni Malkin - Patric Hornqvist making up the rest of the top six, that type of play just can't be supported if the Pens want to be a strong team this season.

Both have been 50-60+ point scorers in the league before, and the Penguins will need their depth and support players to be productive.

Preseason 2015 has brought middling success - Kunitz has looked fast and skilled, a shade of his old (good) self playing along side Crosby and Kessel. Perron hasn't had the best preseason and is seemingly slotted to play on the 3rd line with Nick Bonino and Pascal Dupuis , as Russian rookie Sergei Plotnikov has played very well with Malkin+Hornqvist.

In a long season, both Perron and Kunitz will have plenty of chances to contribute no matter where they play. The Penguins badly need both to be much more productive then they were down the stretch last season.

3. Will the young defense of the Penguins prove to be an Achilles heel?

In the past two off-seasons the Pens have let no fewer than 4 "top 4" caliber defenseman leave via unrestricted free agency in Brooks Orpik + Matt Niskanen in 2014 and then Paul Martin + Christian Ehrhoff this off-season. They've replaced them externally, with about no one, other than 41-year old Sergei Gonchar on a tryout contract.

The message for the Pens is clear: they spent the cap space to acquire Kessel and to get forwards like Bonino and Eric Fehr added to the team. The youth revolution is in full-swing.

Consider that a Penguins blue-line could include:

  • Olli Maatta (21 years old, 98 career NHL regular season games)
  • Brian Dumoulin (24, 14 games)
  • Derrick Pouliot (21, 34 games)
  • Adam Clendening (22, 21 games)

Even Ian Cole , to be counted on as a stable veteran isn't far removed from being on this list (26, 187 games).

Will the Pens youth on defense cost them? It just might - Pouliot has struggled mightily in preseason games and his place on the roster is far from cemented. The same Pouliot that most were counting on to play some 2nd pair minutes and power-play time. Dumoulin has had a middling preseason but has settled in nicely with Cole as a partner.

And Clendening (included in the Bonino for Brandon Sutter trade) has been a pleasant surprise.

There will be some bumps in the road for Pittsburgh's young defense, with the hope being that all (save veteran Rob Scuderi) are good enough skaters and puck-movers to get the puck up to the skilled forwards, and hope they can eat away the minutes mainly in the offensive zone.

If not, there's always the trade deadline to address the defense position. For years the Penguins have always had to try to pick up a top-6 forward late in the season, this year the easy bet is to watch for a defenseman.