NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
|Extra: S. Despres
The Pittsburgh Penguins have stepped on the ice for the first time under new coach Mike Johnston.
Through the first week of training camp, Johnston's message has been clear. He wants the Penguins conditioned, intense and prepared for a grueling 82-game schedule. That was evident when he had the two camp groups finish their respective Sept. 19 practices with a set of wind sprints that would make Kurt Russell's rendition of Herb Brooks proud.
"[The practice] was high tempo, high intensity," forward Pascal Dupuis said. "There's no messing around out there. It's from one drill to another and you have to act professional, he wants this team to play fast and that's how you have to skate and that's how you have to practice."
What isn't evident is how that will translate once Pittsburgh opens its regular season against the Anaheim Ducks at Consol Energy Center on Oct. 9. The players are still getting adjusted to the new system and a few hiccups have occurred through the initial preseason games.
One thing is for sure, these aren't last season's Penguins. They will look to press the attack, use minimal passes to exit the zone and rely on their defensemen to push the puck forward. It's a system built for a certain skill set, one Pittsburgh could possess.
"These guys have been out on the ice quite a bit and you look at the conditioning results, and I like where we're at as far as our conditioning goes," Johnston said. "But it's getting your skating legs under you. … Get some tempo and pace into our practice. If that's the way we want to play, we have to practice that way.
"Then the final part of practice is we'll have some completion. You win, you lose, you skate a little bit more."
Very little is known about the state of Pittsburgh's lines as the regular season approaches.
PENGUINS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275
Below are Pittsburgh Penguins players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.
1. Sidney Crosby
, C (No. 1 overall player
4. Evgeni Malkin
, C/RW (Top 50 breakdown
22. Chris Kunitz
, LW (Top 50 breakdown
51. Marc-Andre Fleury
76. Kris Letang
, D (Injury rebound
84. Patric Hornqvist
, RW (Jensen's sleeper
111. Christian Ehrhoff
, D (Cubeta's sleeper
138. Pascal Dupuis
, LW/RW (Injury rebound
245. Olli Maatta
262. Steve Downie
, LW/RW (Jensen's sleeper
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz have been nursing unspecified injuries, with Crosby and Kunitz participating in some practices and skating prior to others, and Malkin yet to be seen during training camp. Dupuis began training camp wearing a red no-contact jersey in the last portion of his recovery from a torn ACL and shed it for a regular black jersey Thursday. New additions Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, Blake Comeau and Steve Downie are still uncertain on where they factor into the mix.
"I think it's just day-to-day, just see how I feel," Crosby said after a Sept. 23 morning skate. "I wanted to try it. It's just something that's kind of trial and error to just kind of see if I go out there, see how I respond and I wasn't completely out of the woods, I felt like. So probably a couple more days."
There are more questions concerning the Penguins forwards than there have been entering a season in several years.
It remains unknown if the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis line, arguably the NHL's best through last December, will remain intact. It's assumed Hornqvist will replace James Neal as Malkin's right wing, but it is difficult to gauge who will replace Jussi Jokinen to their left. Beau Bennett could fill that void, but he has flourished alongside third-line center Brandon Sutter throughout the start of camp and preseason.
"I'm not going to change my game," Hornqvist said. "I'm going to go hard to the net and shoot a lot and try to create space for my teammates and give the team energy. I'm not going to change my game. It's not time for that. I'm going to do the same that I've always been doing and obviously try to score some goals too.
"In Nashville, if you didn't see anything, you probably dumped it in. … Here, you need to make a play. You have great players around you and to have [Malkin] and Crosby, they can make things happen from nothing. We didn't have that in Nashville."
Downie, Spaling and Comeau are fighting to crack the top-six, but have yet to be locked into a spot. With Crosby and Malkin out through the first week, the Penguins have not been able to use the combinations they will once the regular season opens.
That leaves much doubt as to where certain players slot into the lineup. But Pittsburgh looks to have become stronger throughout its four lines regardless.
With Sutter, Spaling, Comeau, Downie, Marcel Goc and Craig Adams most likely filling the bottom six, the Penguins should be able to send out two capable lines that will take pressure off Crosby and Malkin to perform in order to win.
Olli Maatta, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, isn't expected to be on the ice when the season starts. His absence leaves just as many questions surrounding Pittsburgh's defensive pairings as there are concerning its forward lines.
ADDITIONS: D Christian Ehrhoff (free agent, Sabres), F Patric Hornqvist (trade, Predators), F Nick Spaling (trade, Predators), F Blake Comeau (free agent, Blue Jackets), F Steve Downie (free agent, Flyers), G Thomas Greiss (free agent, Coyotes)
SUBTRACTIONS: F James Neal (trade, Predators), F Jussi Jokinen (free agent, Panthers), D Matt Niskanen (free agent, Capitals), D Brooks Orpik (free agent, Capitals), D Deryk Engelland (free agent, Flames), F Tanner Glass (free agent, Rangers), F Joe Vitale (free agent, Coyotes), F Brian Gibbons (free agent, Blue Jackets), F Harry Zolnierczyk (free agent, Islanders)
PROMOTION CANDIDATES: D Brian Dumoulin, D Derrick Pouliot, D Scott Harrington, D Philip Samulesson
"The shoulder's feeling good. It's getting better," Maatta said. "I mean, when I got the surgery, I wouldn't have thought it'd be this good, but it actually hasn't bothered [me] as much as I expected it to and I had a pretty good summer, even though I had it in a sling for over two months."
Maatta was paired with Matt Niskanen last season, but with Niskanen's departure to the Washington Capitals it's a tough task to predict who Maatta will be aligned with once he is game-ready. He could match with new addition Christian Ehrhoff, as some immediately expected once Ehrhoff was signed moments after free agency began.
Ehrhoff plays a similar style to Niskanen and that familiarity could be welcome for Maatta, who comes off a heralded rookie season that had him mentioned in Calder Trophy discussions.
That isn't the only question that remains. Kris Letang needs a partner and there are currently two viable options.
Johnston could go back to former coach Dan Bylsma's original plan of partnering Letang and Rob Scuderi, which never truly came to fruition last season due to health issues surrounding each player, or he could turn to a pairing of Letang and Paul Martin, which worked well once they were put together a few games into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Letang said he has welcomed the change that has come with the new staff.
"When you get a new car, you're excited when you get a new car," Letang said. "When you get a new house, you're excited you get a new house. Not that the old one was bad, just that it didn't work for you anymore or stuff like that, so it's exciting to be in something new."
Letang has spent the bulk of his time skating alongside Scuderi in camp, and Martin has been a part of the other practice group. So it seems the Penguins are leaning toward turning back to the Letang-Scuderi pairing.
His contract expires following this season, but Marc-Andre Fleury remains the man between the posts in Pittsburgh.
Goalie - PIT
GAA: 2.37 | SVP: .915
Fleury rebounded in the playoffs last season, having his best performance since leading Pittsburgh to the 2009 Stanley Cup. He finished with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage in 13 starts. That came after he appeared in all but 18 of the Penguins' regular-season games following Tomas Vokoun
's diagnosis of a blood clot during training camp.
For the first time in several years, Fleury is not one of the big questions facing Pittsburgh at the start of the season. He had his typical strong regular season, going 39-18-5 with five shutouts, and answered with an equally impressive postseason.
But that doesn't mean the Penguins don't have any concerns at goaltender.
Pittsburgh acquired veteran goalie Thomas Greiss during free agency to battle with incumbent backup Jeff Zatkoff for the role during camp. Zatkoff went 12-6-2 with a 2.61 GAA and .912 save percentage. But the bulk of the load was placed on Fleury, and the Penguins could want a more seasoned backup in order to have their starter fresh come April.
Greiss is entering his sixth NHL season with his third team. His record last season with the Arizona Coyotes (10-8-5) was not as good as Zatkoff, but he had a better GAA (2.29) and save percentage (.920). The goalies have been used in the same practice group, making the competition direct.
Greiss got the start with Zatkoff backing him up in Pittsburgh's 2-0 preseason loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday. He could have made a case toward becoming the man behind Fleury, stopping 26 of 27 shots.