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30 in 30: Potent top of Penguins lineup looks familiar

by Corey Masisak

It has been four seasons since the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup, and each of the past two have ended in shocking fashion. They've fallen behind 3-0 in series they were expected to win after being anointed one of the favorites to win the Cup in each of those regular seasons.

In 2012 it was a wild, defense-optional series against the rival Philadelphia Flyers. In 2013 the offense disappeared against the Boston Bruins.

In 2013-14 the Penguins will again be considered one of the top teams in the NHL. The goals will flow, but a major question in net remains after back-to-back poor postseasons for Marc-Andre Fleury.

The biggest moves of Pittsburgh's offseason were signing Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang each to an eight-year contract extension, and securing Sidney Crosby's linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. There was a bit of a surprise once free agency began: The Penguins were able to retrieve Rob Scuderi after he left for the Los Angeles Kings shortly after Pittsburgh won the Cup in 2009.


Under-valued: James Neal -- Besides the fact Neal is capable of scoring about 40 goals and 70-plus points, the forward's value in the penalty minutes department has been a tremendous bonus over the past four years. Oh yeah, he loves to shoot and racks up loads of power-play points too. He's a borderline first-round fantasy player even after a relatively quiet season; don't wait to draft him.

Over-valued: Paul Martin -- Martin had 23 points and a plus-14 in 34 games last year, but nine of those points came on the power play, where the defenseman will see a diminished role with Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin healthy again. He also has just 131 shots on goal and 34 PIMs over the past two seasons (107 games).

Sleeper: Beau Bennett -- Pittsburgh's first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Bennett might find himself among the team's top six forwards, and that could mean fantasy gold. The 21-year-old had 14 points in 26 games for the Penguins last season and could post 20 goals and 45 points.

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All of the big trade acquisitions -- Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray -- were not retained. Two staples on the third line, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, are gone. The additions -- Matt D'Agostini, Andrew Ebbett and Chris Conner -- were low-cost moves because the team is tight against the NHL salary cap.

The expectations remain the same in Pittsburgh: Either NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup to Crosby in June or the season will be viewed as a disappointment.

Here is the projected 2013-14 lineup for the Penguins:


Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Pascal Dupuis

Beau Bennett - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal

Jussi Jokinen - Brandon Sutter - Matt D'Agostini

Tanner Glass - Joe Vitale - Craig Adams

Dustin Jeffrey


Rob Scuderi - Kris Letang

Paul Martin - Brooks Orpik

Simon Despres - Matt Niskanen

Robert Bortuzzo - Deryk Engelland


Marc-Andre Fleury

Tomas Vokoun

NOTES: Bennett with enter training camp as the favorite to join the five stars in the top six and would most likely fit with Malkin and Neal on the second line. The bottom six could look different without Cooke and Kennedy around, but versatile Jokinen could fit with that group. Jeffrey is another candidate, and the Penguins likely will rotate four players on the fourth line.

Scuderi will enter camp as the favorite to play next to Letang, but Despres could end up in that spot. The Penguins have seven defensemen on one-way contracts plus Despres, so roster places for the touted prospects might not be available. Any of Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington or Brian Dumolin could earn a chance, but Maatta and Pouliot are likely to end up with their junior teams unless there are injuries during camp.

The Penguins will go back to Fleury one more time. He has a new goalie coach, Mike Bales, and just as it was for Fleury in 2012-13, what he accomplishes during the regular season won't dissuade the doubters until he proves capable in the postseason again. Vokoun remains one of the top Plan Bs in the League.


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