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Kessel fit, defense among key questions for Penguins

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com

PITTSBURGH -- After limping into the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs and exiting after five games, the Pittsburgh Penguins made significant additions during the offseason with the goal of retooling for another Stanley Cup run.

The Penguins attempted to bolster their faltering offense through trades and free agent acquisitions, but all that attention could have been to the detriment of their defense. New forwards Phil Kessel, Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino are expected to improve an offense that averaged 1.61 regulation goals during its final 18 games of the regular season.

Pittsburgh expects to be better in 2015-16, but here are three questions the Penguins must answer for that to happen:

Where does Phil Kessel fit? The Penguins got the player they were looking for when they traded for Kessel. The thought of placing Kessel on the right side of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin should have Penguins fans excited, but where he'll play is undecided.

Crosby had much success with forward Patric Hornqvist last season. Hornqvist benefited from Crosby's presence while enjoying arguably the best season of his NHL career (25 goals, 51 points in 64 games). In turn, Crosby benefited from Hornqvist's tendency to fight his way to the crease.

The Crosby-Hornqvist duo was the only true offensive threat Pittsburgh had during its short stay in the postseason, and there seems to be little reason to separate them. That is where the problem lies. If Crosby and Hornqvist are paired again, that makes it virtually impossible for Kessel to play with Crosby. Kessel and Hornqvist are pure right wings, meaning that one will play with Crosby, and the other with Malkin.

Crosby and Hornqvist have proven to be a successful pairing, but the idea of Kessel to Crosby's right could be more enticing. Whoever doesn't land with Crosby will find himself next to Malkin, so there's not much reason for him to complain.

Will the defense be the downfall? Kris Letang is one of the NHL's best all-around defensemen, and he took a large step forward last season as a leading voice in Pittsburgh's dressing room. But after Letang, the defense is riddled with questions.

Paul Martin is gone. Olli Maatta is returning from a season-ending upper-body injury. Ben Lovejoy must improve after a disappointing return to Pittsburgh after he was acquired in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks last season, and 36-year-old Rob Scuderi's production continues to decline in the final stages of his career.

Letang will have to carry a big load, but if Pittsburgh's young defensemen, including Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, can continue progressing, the defense could round into form.

Will Marc-Andre Fleury be on top of his game again? The goaltender has silenced his critics during the past two seasons and was the primary reason Pittsburgh qualified for the playoffs despite its offensive struggles. But with no proven backup after Thomas Greiss left as a free agent -- Jeff Zatkoff, who assumes the role, was 12-6-2 with the Penguins in 2013-14, his only NHL season with more than one game -- Fleury will again be expected to face a heavy workload.

That didn't faze him last season, when he matched his NHL career-best 2.32 goals-against average and set a career high with 10 shutouts in 64 games, and the expected offensive uptick could take some pressure off him. Whether Fleury can handle being the Penguins' workhorse for a third consecutive season remains to be seen.

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