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Health, young defense among Penguins X-factors

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- This season could be pivotal for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They are again expected to be one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, as they've consistently been for several seasons, but that level of hype hasn't panned out since they won their most recent championship in 2009. The tools are there, with a revamped offense, a more experienced coach, and a defense whose youth could make the attack more lethal.

This season must be different, however. With the core of forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, defenseman Kris Letang and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in its prime, Pittsburgh cannot afford many more seasons of early exits from the Stanley Cup Playoffs if this era is to be evaluated as successful.

Health has played an issue in seasons past, as have unexpected slumps in crucial moments. Malkin, who struggled with a sprained ankle through Pittsburgh's five playoff games in 2015, had the appropriate attitude toward last season.

"I don't remember," Malkin said. "That was last year. I'm looking to a new season."

If Malkin's teammates share his focus, Pittsburgh could re-emerge in 2015-16. Here are three X-factors that could determine if the Penguins will find success this season:

Health: Remaining healthy isn't exclusive to the Penguins, but it could affect them more than most.

Pittsburgh had inexplicable bad luck with injuries over the past two seasons, particularly to some of its most vital pieces. Forward Pascal Dupuis, once stationed to the right of Crosby on the top line, has played 55 games the past two seasons after playing every game of the prior two. After tearing his ACL in December 2013, Dupuis returned to start the 2014-15 season, just for it to end on Nov. 19 after a blood clot was found in his lung.

"Last year, from November on, I was skating by myself before everybody," Dupuis said. "Just the fact that I'm here and get to go on the ice at the same time as everybody, just the fact that you're sharing the same thing as everybody else, or you go on the ice for practice and you're battling, you're exhausted at the end of the skate that we had at the end, just like everybody else, it's good to be a part of that same group and not be the outsider looking in."

Defensemen Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Letang will join Dupuis in their own attempts to return from a season-ending injury.

After impressing for the majority of 2014-15 coming off an injury-riddled season, Letang sustained a concussion against the Arizona Coyotes on March 28. Maatta, who is expected to join Letang on Pittsburgh's top defensive pairing, sustained an upper-body injury on Dec. 6, a little more than two weeks after returning from surgery that removed a cancerous tumor from his thyroid gland. Pouliot will return from an upper-body injury that caused him to miss the Penguins' Eastern Conference First Round series against the New York Rangers.

Malkin's ankle played a noticeable factor in that series, limiting his production in a similar fashion to how Crosby was hampered by a wrist injury throughout the playoffs a year prior.

Depth: The Penguins have had two of the most skilled lines in the NHL for some time. The problem is, offensively, they haven't had much else.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford sought to change that this offseason, not only by adding forward Phil Kessel into the top six, but acquiring forwards Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino and Sergei Plotnikov to fill out the lineup. Pittsburgh's reliance on Crosby and Malkin to consistently carry the load has led to inconsistency, Rutherford recognized.

"We clearly have more depth than we did a year ago," Rutherford said. "We'll have more balance. We'll be able to play the game different ways, and we'll have a better chance to score. We all know it's hard to score in this league."

The Penguins could have the ability to roll four lines, which would relieve stress placed on their two top centers.

A young defense must mature: Pittsburgh's defense is young. Very young.

Two of the top-four defensemen, Maatta and Pouliot, are 21 years old. Brian Dumoulin, 24, is expected to play a full season in the NHL for the first time after playing 14 total games the past two seasons. But Penguins coach Mike Johnston said he views the youth as a blessing, rather than a curse.

"I believe our backend will be a lot more active consistently," Johnston said. "If we keep the health issue where it should be, we can get a lot out of our back end with guys like Maatta or Pouliot, Letang. Those guys, those mobile guys that can get up and rush."

Rutherford has said the defensemen's time is now. Whether that proves to be a positive or negative remains to be seen.

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