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Penguins expect young defensemen to take next step

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are confident their offensive prowess will return this season, but their defensive expectations remain tepid.

Pittsburgh responded to a disconcerting offensive effort throughout the final month of last season and the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by adding forwards Phil Kessel, Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino and Sergei Plotnikov. The offense is expected to return to form with arguably the most depth the Penguins have had since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

There was a tradeoff, however.

"We had a good offseason, especially with our forwards," Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. "We clearly have more depth than we did a year ago. 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.

"Our defense, it's time now. … We'll watch our defense, because it is a little bit younger. We'll see how that goes in the first half of the season."

Defensemen Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff left for the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, respectively. In their place, Derrick Pouliot, who scored two goals and five assists in 34 games in his first NHL season, will be tasked with returning from an upper-body injury to become a mainstay in Pittsburgh's defensive top-four.

Brian Dumoulin, who has played 14 games in two NHL seasons, could also see consistent time within Pittsburgh's defense, while Olli Maatta will most likely play on the top pairing entering his third season.

"We'll really have three younger defensemen on the back end if you include Maatta, who missed most of last season," Rutherford said. "Dumoulin will be in his first full year, I think he's ready to go. And Pouliot has worked very hard this summer. Physically, he's more prepared."

Like Pouliot, Kris Letang and Maatta, the Penguins' most skilled defensemen, will attempt to return from season-ending injuries. Letang's resurgent 2014-15 season was cut short prior to the playoffs when he sustained a concussion against the Arizona Coyotes on March 28. After having surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid gland, Maatta sustained an upper-body injury against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 6 that ended his second NHL season after 20 games.

Rutherford said all Penguins players, except Fehr, have been cleared to participate in training camp, including Letang, Maatta and forward Pascal Dupuis, who will return from a blood clot in his lung.

Fehr, who had successful elbow surgery on June 3, could make his Penguins debut roughly a month into the regular season, Rutherford said.

"In particular, those three guys [Letang, Maatta and Dupuis], you talk to them, all three are very driven," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "They're all positive. … Olli Maatta has had two bad injuries since he's been here, but we couldn't have a more positive young guy. Then Kris Letang, I just watched him in the room with his tests, he's a machine now."

Despite the lack of experience, Johnston expects Pittsburgh's defense to be more aggressive and contribute more offensively than it had last season.

"Our defense is fairly wide-open right now," Johnston said. "I believe our back end will be a lot more active consistently. 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.

"Even a guy like [Ian] Cole, I thought did a real good job in the playoffs, activating the rush and contributing, helping our forwards in that area."

Johnston is optimistic the young defensemen can provide a positive impact, but veteran leadership is also necessary. Defenseman Rob Scuderi helps fill that void on the Penguins' third defensive pairing and could be joined by a familiar face when their regular season begins Oct. 8 at the Dallas Stars.

Rutherford said the Penguins would like to start the season with eight defensemen, if possible, which could increase veteran Sergei Gonchar's chance of making the opening night roster off a professional tryout contract. Gonchar spent five seasons in Pittsburgh, primarily as the Penguins' defensive leader from 2005-2010, and had 54 goals and 259 points.

"We want to start with eight defensemen just based on the competition we have going here," Rutherford said. "Each individual will take care of itself, based on how they play. Certainly, Gonchar will be a guy everybody will be watching. He's had a very good career. We'll see how much he has left. Can he keep the tempo?

"But he's a smart player. I think he can contribute to our team. Now, we just have to watch these games."

Johnston agreed.

"Sergei Gonchar is a player people know well here," Johnston said. "You look at his track record, over 1,300 games, 800 points. He's had a phenomenal track record at the NHL level. His puck decisions are really good. His poise with the puck is very good.

"[Gonchar] is a player we like because of how he plays. He can fit into our system. I want to see how he handles the camp, and how he handles the games."

For several seasons, Pittsburgh has had a strong group of defensive prospects that haven't been able to permanently break through to the NHL level. With a substantially different defensive look than the Penguins had last season, doors will open not only for Gonchar, but also for fresh faces to make an impact.

"Like everybody else in training camp here, because of the games, they're going to get an opportunity to show what they can do," Johnston said. "And people will separate themselves. We have a group of defensemen there that we just want to see the table set.

"Let's see who separates themselves from each other."

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