Deep talent pool sets up shot at Stanley Cup run for Penguins



It was described, at the time, as the Penguins going "all in."

Seemed like a pretty fair way to characterize the bold moves general manager Ray Shero made near the NHL trade deadline last season.

He traded away some high-value assets, including early round draft choices and defense prospect Joe Morrow, to bring in the likes of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray, with the intent of upgrading a lineup many already regarded as a front-runner to win the Stanley Cup.

Shero went all in to try to get the franchise's first championship since 2009.

Trouble is, after winning just two rounds in the playoffs, the Penguins were out.

All the way out.

After earning just half the 16 victories needed to claim a Cup.

The rental players Shero added have, as expected, moved on, but he doubled down on the core of this team over the offseason, forging new contracts with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz to complement those given a year or so earlier to Sidney Crosby and James Neal.

He also extended the contract of coach Dan Bylsma, whose future seemed to be in genuine doubt after Boston aborted the Penguins' run at the Cup by sweeping them -- and limiting the NHL's most volatile offense to two goals -- in the Eastern Conference final.

Shero concluded that major changes weren't required, opting to give the nucleus of this group at least one more chance to go after a Cup.

The wisdom of his decision won't be evident until -- or unless -- the Penguins get victory No. 9 in the 2014 playoffs. And, for that matter, seven more after that.

A look at the Penguins' personnel as they prepare for the regular-season opener Thursday:

Centers

Crosby is a popular, if not unanimous, choice as the top player in the world, so the Penguins couldn't hope for anyone better around whom to build their top line.

But if they were seeking qualified candidates for that job, Malkin -- who is virtually alongside Crosby on the depth chart -- would be prominent on the list. Maybe on top of it.

Crosby and Malkin will be in the middle of what shapes up as two highly productive units, and Joe Vitale is a solid fourth-liner.

Brandon Sutter, however, is a dark horse to be a pivotal figure for the Penguins in 2013-14.

His defensive credentials are established, but he apparently will have two fairly skilled wingers, so Sutter will have a chance to add a significant dimension to the offense.

A big season by him could make doing damage control against the Penguins even more daunting for opponents.

No. ... Player ... Ht. ... Wt. ... Skinny

87 ... Sidney Crosby ... 5-11 ... 200 ... Perhaps the only thing he can't do, at least lately, is stay healthy for a full season.

17 ... Dustin Jeffrey ... 6-1 ... 205 ... Don't underestimate the value of a guy who can play any forward position.

71 ... Evgeni Malkin ... 6-3 ... 195 ... He's the NHL's only No. 2 center who's a threat to win league MVP award.

16 ... Brandon Sutter ... 6-3 ... 190 ... Now that he's settled in, should improve on solid first season here.

46 ... Joe Vitale ... 5-11 ... 205 ... Not much flash, but an ideal skills set -- and mindset -- for his role.

Wingers

It probably seems strange to suggest that a guy who has gotten 61 goals in his past 120 regular-season games might be on the verge of a breakout season, but that's the case with Neal.

Give him 82 games alongside Malkin and a niche as the top triggerman on the power play, and there's no reason he can't score 50 goals. Maybe more.

Jussi Jokinen and Beau Bennett have been effective with Malkin and Neal, and both figure to work there during the season. The odd man out on a given night is expected to work on the third line and will enhance the offensive potential of that unit.

No. ... Player ... Ht. ... Wt. ... Skinny

27 ... Craig Adams ... 6-0 ... 200 ... Handles a lot of the dirty, thankless work, and does it pretty well.

19 ... Beau Bennett ... 6-2 ... 195 ... Has top-six skills, even though he might turn up on third line sometimes.

22 ... Matt D'Agostini ... 6-0 ... 198 ... Because he was hurt for much of camp, it's still not clear where he'll fit in.

23 ... Chris Conner ... 5-8 ... 190 ... Good depth guy, but probably shouldn't house hunt while he's here.

9 ... Pascal Dupuis ... 6-1 ... 205 ... Fine wine wishes it could age as well as Dupuis, 34.

15 ... Tanner Glass ... 6-1 ... 210 ... Has to have more of an impact than he did last season.

36 ... Jussi Jokinen ... 5-11 ... 198 ... Hard to believe they got such a versatile guy -- and help paying his contract -- for free.

14 ... Chris Kunitz ... 6-0 ... 195 ... The straight-line game he plays is a perfect match for Crosby's style.

18 ... James Neal ... 6-2 ... 208 ... His release is so quick that even super slow-mo can't always catch it.

Defensemen

There are no fewer than three past and/or potential Olympians -- Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Kris Letang -- and a bounty of promising prospects in the American Hockey League and major junior leagues.

Nonetheless, the Penguins were leaky enough in their own end that general manager Ray Shero decided to invest $13.5 million over four years to bring back Rob Scuderi, who specializes in cleaning up messes in his own end, when he's not outright preventing them.

He won't be expected to make headlines. Just to make a difference in his team's defensive work.

No. ... Player ... Ht. ... Wt. ... Skinny

41 ... Robert Bortuzzo ... 6-4 ... 215 ... A good shutdown-style defender who will only get better.

47 ... Simon Despres ... 6-4 ... 214 ... Might not start season in NHL for salary-cap reasons, but can contribute here.

5 ... Deryk Engelland ... 6-2 ... 215 ... Can earn his keep on nights when there's a premium on toughness.

58 ... Kris Letang ... 6-0 ... 201 ... Should again be in the Norris Trophy mix if he can get, and stay, healthy.

3 ... Olli Maatta ... 6-2 ... 206 ... Surprisingly reliable, responsible and well-rounded for a 19-year-old.

7 ... Paul Martin ... 6-1 ... 200 ... Doesn't have to build on his play of last season. Just replicate it.

2 ... Matt Niskanen ... 6-0 ... 209 ... When he's on the third pairing, it's a pretty solid defense corps.

44 ... Brooks Orpik ... 6-2 ... 219 ... Has held up well for guy who plays lot of minutes and rugged style.

52 ... Harrison Ruopp ... 6-3 ... 205 ... On roster for cap reasons, but could be a physical force someday.

4 ... Rob Scuderi ... 6-1 ... 212 ... No question he understands his role. If he can execute it well, he'll be a big plus.

Goalies

Marc-Andre Fleury won't just be competing for a playoff berth this season.

Or even a Stanley Cup.

He likely is playing for his future with the franchise.

Fleury's seven-year contract expires in 2015, and, with a series of disappointing playoff performances on his resume, he'll have to re-establish himself as a goalie with whom the Penguins can win a championship, if not win one for them on his own.

If Tomas Vokoun recovers from the blood-clot problem that has landed him on injured reserve, he's a more than capable fill-in, but he's not the long term answer in goal.

Fleury's challenge is to prove that he deserves to be thought of exactly that way.

No. ... Player ... Ht. ... Wt. ... Skinny

29 ... Marc-Andre Fleury ... 6-2 ... 180 ... Has new goalie coach, Mike Bales, and must rebound from poor playoff showing.

92 ... Tomas Vokoun ... 6-1 ... 210 ... If he's out for an extended period, Penguins' safety net will have huge hole.

37 ... Jeff Zatkoff ... 6-2 ... 179 ... Wasn't supposed to be in NHL this season. Will get to prove whether he belongs.

penguins

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published October 2, 2013 4:15 AM


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