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Penguins push for Stanley Cup promised land after blockbuster offseason

Sidney+Crosby+skates+up+ice+against+the+Columbus+Blue+Jackets+in+Game+5+during+an+Eastern+Conference+quarterfinal+at+Consol+Energy+Center+in+Pittsburgh+on+Saturday%2C+April+26%2C+2014.+The+Penguins+won%2C+3-1%2C+for+a+3-2+series+lead.+%28Peter+Diana%2FPittsburgh+Post-Gazette%2FMCT%29
Sidney Crosby skates up ice against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 5 during an Eastern Conference quarterfinal at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Saturday, April 26, 2014. The Penguins won, 3-1, for a 3-2 series lead. (Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)

Sidney Crosby skates up ice against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 5 during an Eastern Conference quarterfinal at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Saturday, April 26, 2014. The Penguins won, 3-1, for a 3-2 series lead. (Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)

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Sidney Crosby skates up ice against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 5 during an Eastern Conference quarterfinal at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Saturday, April 26, 2014. The Penguins won, 3-1, for a 3-2 series lead. (Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)

By Jeff Carpenter / Staff Writer

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If memories of the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup win seem distant, it’s because they are.

It’s been six years since Pittsburgh beat Detroit to earn its third NHL Championship. Despite a playoff berth every year since, those playoff trips have ended once in the conference finals, twice in the quarter finals, and the rest earlier.

Employing two of the game’s best forwards in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have flailed away hopelessly when the games matter most. Despite staying competitive during the regular season, the team suffered an early exit again this postseason, losing 4-1 to the New York Rangers in the opening round.

In fact, the Penguins’ 98 points in 2015 — while still good enough for a playoff spot — was the club’s lowest point total since 2006, when Crosby was a rookie.

But an eventful offseason — centered around the acquisition of former Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel — is bringing fans hope that the Pens can go all the way for their fourth Cup.


Who’s Out:

The Penguins will be without the services of two of their primary defensemen from last year — Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff. Martin moved on in free agency to the San Jose Sharks, while the Los Angeles Kings signed Ehrhoff following an injury-riddled season as a Pen.

The team traded center Brandon Sutter to the Vancouver Canucks after he posted 21 goals and 12 assists as a third-line player. The Penguins also lost some toughness in the departure of forward Steve Downie, who led the league with 238 penalty minutes last year.


Who’s In:

In quite possibly the biggest deal of the summer, the Penguins acquired Kessel along with Tyler Biggs and Tim Erixon for youngster Nick Spaling, 2014 first round draft pick Kasperi Kapanen, defensive prospect Scott Harrington and the Penguins’ 2016 third round pick. The teams also exchanged conditional draft picks.

The acquisition of Kessel, a five-time 30-goal scorer who hasn’t missed a game in the past five years, is huge. The Penguins were able to finalize the deal without jeopardizing its future by giving up too many top prospects.

The remaining changes to the Penguins’ roster came in Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford’s attempt to find scoring from all four lines. Sutter’s trade netted forward Nick Bonino, and free agent Eric Fehr should both solid depth grabs.

The Penguins also brought in a wildcard to serve as Malkin’s linemate. The team signed Sergei Plotnikov, 25, from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, where he put up 15 goals and 21 assists in 56 games last season.


Offense:

Adding Kessel’s presence to a line with Crosby and Malkin should help restore the Penguins’ powerplay, which fell from first in the league in 2014 to 10th last year.

Kessel will finally be playing with an all-star — and former MVP — center in Crosby. Winger Patrik Hornqvist — who had 25 goals and 26 assists in his first season in Pittsburgh last year  — should line up alongside them, unless it’s David Perron — who the team acquired from the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline last year.

Bonino should create a formidable third line with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, who is returning from a blood clot that cut short his season. Dupuis and Kunitz already have chemistry together from their time on the same line.

Fehr will likely center the fourth line alongside Kael Mouillierat and Beau Bennett. Injury and inconsistency have plagued Bennett, a 2010 first round pick, and he might be cut soon if he can’t produce.


Defense:

The biggest help on defense might be a full season from Olli Maatta, who saw only 20 games of action because of a bout with thyroid cancer as well as shoulder surgery. Kris Letang is healed up from his concussion and will be Maatta’s partner after posting 54 points last season.

After Maatta and Letang, the defense becomes worrisome. While the Pens have preached about their top defensive prospects for years, experience is important behind the blue line.

Veterans Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy have the years, but low ceilings. Meanwhile, Derrick Pouliot has loads of potential, but is only 21 and got his first taste of the NHL last season. 


Goaltending:

The Penguins named Marc-Andre Fleury the team’s MVP last season — after posting a 34-20-9 record, 2.32 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. The 30-year-old netminder also led the league in shutouts, with 10, securing his second career All-Star Game selection in the process.

Whether or not Fleury can replicate his performance this year could be the precursor of how good — or bad — this Penguins team can be.


Outlook:

The Penguins enter the season with one of the better top sixes a team can put on the ice. With the NHL’s move to a 3-on-3 overtime format, no other NHL team can rival the Penguins’ ability to send Crosby, Malkin and Letang over the boards with two points on the line.

Pittsburgh also possesses a better, more skillful bottom six than most previous Penguins teams. Kessel — and how he responds with Crosby — will be the pivot for the season’s success or failure. Based on the prseason, it’s looking like a world-class line.

The defense will take its bumps and bruises as it’s a noticeably younger group than last year. Fleury will need to perform to bail out the group and ensure success.

While the Washington Capitals and Rangers might be out of reach, the Pens should battle the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets for a chance to finish third in the Metropolitan Division and secure a playoff spot for the 10th year in a row.

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Penguins push for Stanley Cup promised land after blockbuster offseason