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New coach, players among Penguins five questions

by Wes Crosby

The Pittsburgh Penguins will enter the 2014-15 season as a different team, for better or worse.

After another disappointing result in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Pittsburgh overhauled its managerial and coaching staffs, then retooled its roster. The Penguins have been one of the NHL's more consistent franchises in recent years, but their lack of satisfaction with regular-season success has led to a new direction.

Here are five questions the Penguins must answer if they plan to remain the steady franchise they were under their previous regime:

1. Will the new coach pay immediate dividends? -- Pittsburgh replaced Dan Bylsma, who led it to a Stanley Cup in 2009, with Mike Johnston, who has never been an NHL head coach or player.

Johnston could prove he was the right hire.

While coaching the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, he employed an up-tempo system that seems catered to how the Penguins are built to play. Pittsburgh has two of the NHL's best players in forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centering their top two lines, which should help the Penguins transition into Johnston's scheme.

"I like to come out as a pack, just because I think there's more options for the puck carrier," Johnston said. "Once you stretch the zone really quick, then your puck carrier is isolated often and he has to chip the puck in, dump it in and there's no support."

But having Crosby and Malkin in their primes could be an unenviable scenario. The Penguins' window to win with this core will eventually close. Johnston enters the season with substantial expectations and that puts a gigantic amount of pressure on a coach who is just getting his feet wet in the NHL.

2. Will the new-look roster produce a better result? -- These are not the same Penguins that bowed out in the second round of the 2014 playoffs.

Forward James Neal was traded to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Forwards Jussi Jokinen, Joe Vitale and Tanner Glass are gone, as are defensemen Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland.

A noteworthy portion of the Penguins' lineup has been lost, but they've used the past few months to fill some of their roster holes. Pittsburgh signed defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who should make losing Niskanen and Orpik more manageable, as well as forwards Steve Downie and Blake Comeau.

3. How healthy is the first line? -- Pittsburgh has arguably the League's most impressive top line when healthy, assuming it uses the same line as a season ago. But it's uncertain how ready Crosby and forward Pascal Dupuis will be in October.

After struggling to score throughout the postseason, it was discovered Crosby was playing with an injured wrist. He elected not to have surgery and it remains to be seen if that will affect the defending Hart Trophy winner in his quest for back-to-back League MVP honors.

Dupuis, who sustained a season-ending ACL tear on Dec. 23, expects to be fully recovered for training camp in September. But even if he is healthy, missing 43 games last season could amount to some level of rust.

4. Will Malkin thrive with a new line? -- Malkin, Neal and Jokinen were Pittsburgh's most consistent trio last season. Malkin must adjust to two new linemates quickly.

Hornqvist is expected to take one spot alongside the Hart, Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophy winner while Beau Bennett could get one more chance to claim the other wing. Malkin has a penchant for making those around him better, and he will need to showcase it yet again.

5. Will Kris Letang return to form? -- Letang had a rough 2013-14 season. He missed 45 games due to several injuries, including a stroke sustained in late January.

But after being paired with defenseman Paul Martin a few games into the playoffs, Letang's defensive game dramatically improved while his notable offensive skill set remained intact. He is expected to enter the season paired with Martin, which could see him return to the level he reached as a Norris Trophy finalist in 2012-13.

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