5 key questions for the Penguins in 2013

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For months, it seemed as if NHL training camps never would start.

Not in time for games to be played this winter, anyway.

Well, now that the new collective bargaining agreement has been approved by all concerned, camps are about to open -- some clubs will run their first drills today, although the Penguins don't plan a formal workout until Monday -- but they won't stay that way for long.

The regular season begins Saturday, when the Penguins will visit Philadelphia, the team that jettisoned them from the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring.

The Penguins have a lot of questions to deal with before facing the Flyers, and some that might spill over into the regular season.

Here are five of the biggest going into this week's camp.

1. Can Sidney Crosby stay healthy?

This might be the easiest question for anyone in hockey to answer because the response is obvious: No one knows.

Of course, the same can be said of any player, on any team, because injuries are an integral part of all contact sports.

The issue is particularly significant for Crosby, though, because he has appeared in just 22 games during the past 24-plus months because of a concussion and neck injury. Being the finest player in the sport doesn't matter much when you spend game nights in street clothes.

Crosby, however, says he hasn't experienced any issues related to those injuries for many, many months and figures to be as focused and motivated as an athlete can be when the games begin.

If he's able to stay in the lineup for all 48 of them, Crosby seems poised to put together one of the most memorable seasons of his career.

2. Who will play with Malkin and Neal?

The Penguins have one of the most formidable 1-2 offensive punches in the league with defending MVP and scoring champion Evgeni Malkin and 40-goal man James Neal on the same line.

What they don't have is an obvious choice to play left wing with them. Or even, necessarily, a plan to pick one guy and stick with him there.

Beau Bennett is an intriguing possibility and has lots of top-six time in his future, but he's a first-year pro who will have to prove he's ready to contribute at this level.

While Eric Tangradi has power-forward potential, he has not established that he can be an offensive factor in the NHL.

Tyler Kennedy might be a good fit if the Penguins were desperate for someone on the line to launch pucks on goal, but Malkin and Neal don't need any help in that regard.

Matt Cooke? Responsible and fairly versatile, but not a big-time points guy. Not unless he's compared to another candidate who has been mentioned, newly arrived blue-collar winger Tanner Glass.

Dan Bylsma floated the name of Brandon Sutter, but the Penguins insisted he be included in the Jordan Staal trade because they needed a No. 3 center. Plugging Dustin Jeffrey into the middle on the third line occasionally might free Sutter to get some work with Malkin and Neal, though.

3. How will the logjam on defense be broken?

The Penguins tried to lure free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter to town last summer because they wanted a top-shelf partner for all-star Kris Letang.

Well, Suter signed with Minnesota, and the only major move so far on the Penguins' blue line has been the draft-weekend deal that sent Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix.

Still, there still is a surplus of waiver-eligible bodies -- nine, when Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Strait and Dylan Reese from Wilkes-Barre are considered -- and there simply isn't room for everyone, even if Bylsma decides to keep eight, an unwieldy total.

That one or two guys will have to be pared from the active roster before the week is out is obvious; the only question is whether that will be done by injury, waivers or a trade.

4. How will Tomas Vokoun work out?

Brent Johnson, who was allowed to become a free agent in July, had an excellent working relationship with Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins' No. 1 goalie.

Trouble is, Johnson seemed to be finding it increasingly difficult to stop pucks, so the Penguins traded for Vokoun's rights and gave him a two-year contract.

He is capable of playing go-to guy minutes, but management has stressed that the top job belongs to Fleury. Nonetheless, Vokoun might be able to push Fleury enough to exorcise some of the lapses that turn up in his game occasionally.

If this partnership jells, the Penguins' goaltending could be as good as any in the game.

5. Can Brandon Sutter fill the Staal void on third line?

The Penguins had the best third-line center in hockey until they traded Jordan Staal to Carolina in June, after it became apparent Staal didn't care to stay for an extended period.

General manager Ray Shero actually managed to get a remarkable return -- the No. 8 pick in the draft (Derrick Pouliot), defenseman Brian Dumoulin and Sutter -- considering that he could have lost Staal for nothing as an unrestricted free agent during the coming offseason, but the short-term key to the deal is Sutter.

He isn't Staal, whose game is a sensational hybrid of size, speed, strength and skill, but he is a better-than-average No. 3 center who, at age 23, should continue getting better for a number of years.

Sutter admittedly was taken aback when the Hurricanes traded him, but any shock and disappointment should be far behind him by now.

He has a rare opportunity -- not many guys have the luxury of playing behind two of the best centers in the world -- and if Sutter embraces it, it should ease much of the sting of losing Staal.

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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published January 13, 2013 5:00 AM


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