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Adding Kessel to core group gives Penguins optimism

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins struggled down the stretch last season before earning the final Stanley Cup Playoff berth from the Eastern Conference. They are shooting a lot higher this season.

The Penguins led the Metropolitan Division for much of last season before fading and needing to defeat the last-place Buffalo Sabres on the final night of the regular season. But with a returning core of forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, defenseman Kris Letang, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, plus newcomer Phil Kessel, the Penguins are expecting to return to the top of the conference in Mike Johnston's second season as coach.

Here are four reasons for the Penguins to be optimistic:

Addition of Phil Kessel: Injuries and inconsistency last season left the Penguins searching for wings to play alongside Crosby and Malkin. Patric Hornqvist helped fill that role, primarily playing to the right of Crosby, but his addition in a trade with the Nashville Predators cost the Penguins 40-goal scorer James Neal.

General manager Jim Rutherford hopes he ended those problems by acquiring Kessel in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1.

"It's a nice addition to our team, obviously," Crosby told CTV News Atlantic. "He's a great scorer, he brings a lot, and offensively he's going to help any team. So we're happy to have him, and I think from talking to him he seems like he's excited, and I think it'll be something that everyone's looking forward to this season, a lot of anticipation."

Rutherford, who said he would bring in at least one top-six wing after the Penguins were eliminated by the New York Rangers in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round, acquired Kessel, forward Tyler Biggs and defenseman Tim Erixon for forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Nick Spaling, defenseman Scott Harrington and two draft picks.

Kessel has scored at least 32 goals in five of his past seven seasons. Sliding him into the top six immediately improves a unit that struggled while Malkin trudged through a late-season sprained ankle. The addition of Kessel to a top-six group that includes Crosby, Malkin, Hornqvist and David Perron should help restore Pittsburgh's firepower.

The (not so) bottom six: The Penguins' lack of depth up front has been a problem for the past two seasons. But Kessel's addition to one of the top two lines will knock someone from a top-six role on to the third line.

Forward Chris Kunitz could find himself in that position if he doesn't land at second-line left wing alongside Malkin. Pascal Dupuis is also likely to play as a third-line wing when he makes his return from a blood clot that had the potential to end his 15-year career.

Pittsburgh added forwards Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, who could center the third and fourth lines, and Russian forward Sergei Plotnikov during the offseason. With the trickle-down effect caused by Kessel's addition, coupled with the offseason acquisitions, this could be Pittsburgh's deepest group of forwards in several seasons.

The core is secure: The Penguins' core four have been, and will continue to be, their greatest strength.

Crosby and Malkin form what is arguably the NHL's most explosive one-two combination at center. Letang has been one of the NHL's best offensive defenseman throughout his career and continues to improve. Fleury routinely has been a stellar regular-season performer but recently has become Pittsburgh's most dependable postseason performer as well.

The most pressure is on Letang, who returns from a late-season concussion to lead a defensive unit that causes concerns following Paul Martin's departure as a free agent to the San Jose Sharks. But Letang improved as a leader last season and seems prepared to take full control of Pittsburgh's blue line.

"I'm in great shape," Letang said. "I got on the ice last week, so I'm following the same program I follow every summer. There was no delay in that sense. ... I'd say it's been one of my best summers in terms of training and how I feel."

Coach Mike Johnston is no longer a rookie: Johnston made his NHL coaching debut last season and was expected by many to immediately lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup.

That didn't work out.

But Johnston did impress his players with his hockey IQ, which helped steer the Penguins through uncertain waters riddled with injuries. Pittsburgh may have snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season after struggling through the final month, and lost to the New York Rangers in the first round, but Johnston learned what it is to be an NHL coach.

With an improved roster led by a solid core, and with one season's experience, Johnston could be prepared to deliver the championship he was unprepared to win last season.

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