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Kessel addition has Penguins' Crosby, Malkin excited

by Shawn Roarke

TORONTO -- The offseason remodeling of the Pittsburgh Penguins has their top two players very excited.

The Penguins were active in the summer after being knocked out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the New York Rangers in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round. Pittsburgh, dealing with several injuries, scored four goals in the four losses.

The signature move by general manager Jim Rutherford was the blockbuster trade to acquire forward Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs. It left Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin smiling at the possibilities for the upcoming season.

"I think everybody is excited to have [Phil] as a teammate, to know with one chance in the slot he can change a game pretty quickly," Crosby said Tuesday at the NHL's annual Player Media Tour at MasterCard Center. "Those guys aren't easy to find. Regardless of who plays with him, he's going to create a lot of offense."

The price to acquire Kessel on July 1 was steep.

The Penguins traded two top prospects, forward Kasperi Kapanen and defenseman Scott Harrington, as well as forward Nick Spaling and first- and third-round picks in the 2016 NHL Draft. In return, they received one of the game's purest goal-scorers -- Kessel's 217 goals since the start of the 2008-09 season are sixth in the NHL -- defenseman Tim Erixon, forward Tyler Biggs and a second-round pick in 2016.

With that one fell swoop, Rutherford changed the look of the forward lines, pairing one of his elite centers, Crosby or Malkin, with an elite goal-scorer in the mode of James Neal, who left for the Nashville Predators before the start of the 2014-15 season.

"I know him as a sniper," Malkin said of Kessel. "He likes to score goals. He's flying every game. I think if he plays with Sid, he can score 50 goals at least. He has everything."

The 27-year-old right wing had 25 goals for the Maple Leafs last season but scored a career-high 37 in 2013-14. In 668 NHL games, he has 247 goals.

The remodeling has not just received the stamp of approval from Crosby and Malkin; others across the League are noticing the remake happening in the Steel City.

"Hopefully, they can't figure it out either," Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said during his Player Media Tour appearance Tuesday. "If they do, then we're all in trouble. That's an overdose of skill, if Kessel ends up playing with one or the other.

"It's pretty amazing what a pure sniper, pure goal-scorer, could do with two guys that can move the puck and control the puck like Crosby and Malkin."

The Penguins also made other less-noticed but important additions.

Sergei Plotnikov, 25, signed a one-year contract with Pittsburgh after playing the past three seasons with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the Kontinental Hockey League. He was the third-leading scorer in the 2014 IIHF World Championship for the gold medal-winning Russians.

Malkin played on the World Championship team and says that Plotnikov, who is 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, is a skilled forward who will fit in quickly with the Penguins.

Crosby has skated with Plotnikov a few times since the Russian reported to Pittsburgh in anticipation of the start of training camp in 10 days.

"He's been in Pittsburgh for a couple weeks, and he's a lot bigger than I thought," Crosby said. "He's definitely a big guy and he's going to be able to use his body I think pretty well. Definitely on smaller ice, I think there will be more of an opportunity to be able to do that. His shot is really good. We haven't had a lot of scrimmages, but you can tell those two things, his size and his shot, really stick out early on."

If Plotnikov is as good as advertised, the Penguins will have one of the deepest forward groups in the League, particularly with veteran left wing Pascal Dupuis, who missed most of last season with blood clots, making a return.

"There's lots of good forwards; Pascal Dupuis is back, Chris Kunitz," Malkin said. "We have four good lines. It's good for me. I'm excited."

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