Five questions facing the Penguins in camp

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The Penguins' 2013-14 season begins three weeks from today.

Between now and then, muscles will be strained and nerves tested.

Systems will be taught and video analyzed.

Personnel moves will be made and maybe second-guessed. Possibly regretted.

All to select the 23 men, at most, who will be on the NHL roster when New Jersey comes to town Oct. 3 for the opener.

And it starts with three on-ice workouts, the first of them at 9 a.m., today at Consol Energy Center.

Inside are five of the most pressing issues facing the Penguins in training camp:

1. Who goes to make the Penguins salary-cap compliant?

The Penguins are about $1.1 million over the salary-cap ceiling of $64.3 million for 2013-14 and have until the end of camp to get down to it.

Barring a long-term injury to a big-money player, conventional wisdom has Matt Niskanen as the most likely candidate to be traded. That's partly because of the Penguins' surplus of capable defensemen and partly because losing his $2.3 million cap hit not only would get them below the ceiling, but would give general manager Ray Shero the flexibility he likes to have going into a season.

There's no guarantee, however, that Shero will proceed that way.

He could trade a more prominent and higher-paid defenseman. Or maybe he'll move a forward like Jussi Jokinen, who is productive and versatile but possibly expendable because the Penguins are responsible for $2.1 million of his $3 million cap hit. (Carolina, his former team, is paying the rest).

Although the cap ceiling dropped significantly for 2013-14, it is expected to shoot back up in coming seasons. It will be interesting to see if those projections have any influence on Shero's decision.

2. What will the bottom two lines look like?

The field of candidates to play on the third and fourth lines grew a bit when veteran right winger Chuck Kobasew agreed to a pro tryout.

He's at a serious competitive disadvantage when going against guys who have the security of a contract, but the Penguins wouldn't have brought Kobasew in if they didn't think he had a chance to earn a spot.

Brandon Sutter is set in the middle of the No. 3 unit and center Joe Vitale seems fairly secure on the fourth line, but there are numerous candidates for the wings on both lines.

They include Jokinen, Kobasew, Tanner Glass, Matt D'Agostini, Dustin Jeffrey, Chris Conner, Harry Zolnierczyk and possibly a few guys from the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

3. Can any of the young defensemen steal a roster spot?

The Penguins open camp with seven waivers-eligible defensemen and one, Simon Despres, who has a two-way contract and wouldn't have to clear waivers to return to the AHL. The catch is, Despres would have to regress quite a bit to justify a demotion to the minors.

That means that, barring injuries or the departure of multiple defensemen via trades, no one in the Penguins' stable of high-end young defensemen is likely to open the season in the NHL.

Members of that group -- which includes, among others, Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta and Scott Harrington -- won't have their development stunted by spending time in the AHL, so there's no pressure on management to get them onto the major-league roster for the start of this season.

Injuries, trades and subpar performances can change plans, however, and the possibility that one of the young defensemen will force his way into the NHL shouldn't be dismissed entirely.

4. Will Marc-Andre Fleury bounce back from his playoff miseries?

Wednesday, coach Dan Bylsma labeled Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun the "best tandem" of goaltenders in the NHL, and said that Fleury is penciled in to again get the majority of starts this winter.

That's in keeping with Fleury's status as the No. 1 goalie, even though Vokoun supplanted him as the Penguins' go-to goalie when Fleury struggled early in their opening-round playoff series against the New York Islanders.

Fleury has had a string of disappointing playoff performances, but what happened this spring probably was the nadir of his pro career.

And with just two seasons remaining on his contract, his play in 2013-14 could determine whether he has a long-term future here.

His work during camp and in the regular season matters, of course, but final judgment on Fleury's play isn't likely to come until the playoffs.

5. How much will special teams be tweaked, and how much should they?

The Penguins had the NHL's second-ranked power play in the regular season (24.7 percent), and it placed fourth in the playoffs (21.3 percent).

Nice numbers, to be sure, but the enduring stat is the power play's 0-for-15 showing in the Eastern Conference final, when a timely goal or two could have made a big difference in how the series played out.

Still, with the talent the Penguins can send out when they get a man-advantage, it doesn't seem like a major overhaul is in order.

Their penalty-killing, meanwhile, was among the NHL's least effective in the regular season (ranked 25th, 79.6 percent) but placed second in the playoffs, with a success rate of 92.3 percent.

Losing Matt Cooke up front will hurt, but the Penguins should be able to find a capable replacement among their forwards and adding Rob Scuderi to their blue line can only be a plus when they're down a man.


Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG First Published September 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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