What a long off-season it's been. If you took a snooze from April 24 until now on the Pittsburgh Penguins, don't worry we'll catch you up quickly on what you've missed as training camp opens tomorrow.
The Penguins made one of the biggest moves of the off-season, trading for Phil Kessel, which will give Sidney Crosby his first superstar caliber winger since Marian Hossa back in 2008. The trickle-down effect will also help Evgeni Malkin skate with more skilled wingers than in the past. Kessel has been one of the most productive wingers in the league and is a five-time (five-time, five-time!) 30-goal scorer.
Lots of depth
Summed up in a graph (more on that here from July), the Penguins have revamped their whole roster over about the past year around their franchise cornerstones (Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury) and vets they couldn't get rid of (Rob Scuderi, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis). Other than that- and of course Olli Maatta - Pittsburgh has turned over the entire club from spring 2014 until now.
Not many positions up for grabs
Based on initial projections, the Penguins have 11 forwards already locked into the opening night roster, if they're healthy. Another, Eric Fehr, will likely be out early in the season as he recovers from off-season surgery.
Kunitz/Perron - Crosby - Kessel
Kunitz/Perron - Malkin - Patric Hornqvist
Sergei Plotnikov - Nick Bonino - Pascal Dupuis
??? - Matt Cullen - Beau Bennett
That leaves only one lineup spot (and probably 1 extra depth spot) for all of: Scott Wilson, Oskar Sundqvist, Bryan Rust as well as longshots like Bobby Farnham, Tom Sestito and Dominik Uher to fight for.
Going with youth on defense
Pittsburgh invested deeply in forwards, and have opted to take the calculated risk to let younger players play very large roles defensively. Maatta is penciled into top pairing duties with Letang, with both players having health issues last season.
Derrick Pouliot figures to be in the opening night lineup. Brian Dumoulin signed a two-year, one-way contract and is waiver eligible, so he too is likely to be with the NHL team when camp breaks. Veterans in Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy and, yes, Rob Scuderi round out the defensive unit.
That is 7 names there, and also 41 year old defenseman Sergei Gonchar is in camp on a tryout deal. Though age, roster numbers and recent performance all are stacking up against him. There's also outside shots for Adam Clendening and Tim Erixon (trade throw-ins this summer) to beat someone for a job. Veteran free agent signings in David Warsofsky and Steve Oleksy also have a limited amount of past NHL experience to add to the organizational depth.
5 Guys to Watch
Sergei Plotnikov - the 25 year old Russian chose the Pens over 17 other interested NHL teams and will be making his debut in North America. He's got good size (6'2, 200) and is decently skilled and physical but his skating (especially on the first few steps) isn't great. Watch to see if Plotnikov adjusts to the NHL-style of play, smaller rinks and just culturally gets acclimated to America.
Ian Cole - last season's trade pickup played well in new scenery but now has a lot more responsibility and is being counted on to be a major piece of the puzzle. Watch to see if he can live up to the $2.1 million contract he signed over the summer and keep up his solid play.
Left side of Crosby/Kessel - last year ended with slumps for both Chris Kunitz and David Perron. One of them is likely to skate with Crosby, the other should play with Malkin unless the Penguins get really creative and play another forward (Bennett or Dupuis) out of positioning. The Pens will need more out of both Kunitz and Perron, and neither will be getting a lot of top-unit power play time. Watch to see how they're able to bounce back.
Derrick Pouliot - the 21 year old defenseman enters his second season pro looking to make strides and become a more consistent player. The Pens are counting on him making a significant step forward this year to help the NHL team out. Watch to see if he can start putting all the pieces together.
Matt Murray - as the AHL's best goalie in the league last season, the 21-year old Murray is likely ticketed back to Wilkes-Barre as a starter there to make sure he gets enough game-time in the net, instead of bench sitting watching Fleury start almost all the games. But the Pens definitely have their eye on Murray as a potential NHL netminder sooner than later, so watch to see how the tall, lanky (6'4, 171) goalie handles elite NHL shooters like Malkin, Kessel, Crosby and Hornqvist.