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Perron's role undefined after Kessel joins Penguins

by Dan Rosen

David Perron's immediate reaction was excitement when the news broke July 1 that the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Phil Kessel in a blockbuster seven-player trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"He's a guy that can certainly score 50 goals in a season," Perron told in a phone interview Wednesday from his offseason home in Magog, Quebec. "It's going to be fun to watch how he's going to react to everything."

Perron insists that at the time the Penguins made the trade he didn't consider what acquiring Kessel means for his spot on the depth chart, and potentially in Pittsburgh's top-six group of forwards.

It's worth considering because Kessel's presence could have an effect on Perron.

Kessel is the Penguins' best right wing. It's unclear if he will start the season on a line with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. That most likely won't be determined until late in training camp.

But the acquisition of Kessel took away one guaranteed spot in the Penguins' top-six group. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Patric Hornqvist should have locks on four of the six spots. The first three are heavy-duty locks. That's two centers and two right wings.

Perron, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and potentially rookie Sergei Plotnikov and Beau Bennett will compete for the two left-wing spots in the top six.

Kunitz is coming off a subpar season, and Dupuis missed most of last season because of blood clots. Each has a long history of playing well with Crosby. It might be a stretch to consider either a top-six forward at this point in his career, but the fit with Crosby helps.

Plotnikov, a left wing, is Russian, and the general assumption is he'd fit best with Malkin. General manager Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review earlier this month that he's interested to see how Malkin is as a mentor for Plotnikov, who he called a top-six wing.

Bennett is a right-handed shot and has had a history of injuries that have derailed his development, but he's long been considered a potential top-six wing.

What does that mean for Perron?

"I think my role will be defined as I play and I'm confident that I'm able to play in our top six and really contribute every night," Perron said.

Perron's confidence in himself is high for two reasons:

1) He has already played with Crosby and Malkin, so he's coming to training camp ahead of the curve in understanding the demands they put on their wings and the different tasks a wing has to handle when playing with each guy.

Crosby likes to attack off the rush and with speed through the neutral zone, so his wings have to be able to keep up with him and expect the puck at unexpected times. Malkin likes to swoop and cut and crisscross through the neutral zone, and his wings have to be able to have patience and get open for him because he also wants the puck at all times.

"They're obviously some of the best players in the world, and at times they're really demanding, and I did get caught a little bit off guard at the start when that started happening because I didn't know them," Perron said. "I was really happy to be there, to be in a playoff position, and I didn't know how to deal with it. Now that I got to know them for a half a season, I think it's going to be a big positive for me. I think it's even better that I got that half season last year, coming into camp. Now I know what to expect. If I had just come in this summer, it would have been different. I know everything about the organization now pretty much."

2) Perron is healthy this summer and has been able to train at full speed while adding the footwork and power skating elements the Penguins' coaching staff asked him to do when he met with them at the end of the season.

Those skating elements are essential to Perron, who admitted skating isn't his best asset but has to be at least above average to be able to play with Crosby or Malkin.

"Hopefully it helps my skating," he said. "Hopefully it helps my speed."

Perron couldn't say he was healthy last summer, when he was dealing with a sore hip that caused him to get a late start on his offseason training regimen. He felt it carried into the season, and by the end, when he was dealing with other nagging injuries, it caught up with him and prevented him from being an above-average skater.

He had nine goals in his first 16 games with the Penguins, playing mostly with Crosby. That was when he was jolted by the excitement of joining a contender and the opportunity to play with arguably the best player in the NHL.

Perron had three goals in his final 27 games, and none in the last 12, a drought that extended into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he was held without a goal in Pittsburgh's five-game series loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round.

"I wasn't feeling 100 percent confident throughout the whole year," Perron said.

He finished last season with 17 goals and 41 points in 81 games split between Edmonton and Pittsburgh. He had career bests in goals (28) and points (57) with the Oilers in the 2013-14 season, when he was healthy.

"Talking with coaches and management at the end of the year about things they want me to improve on, I think I've put in the work so far and I've gotta keep going throughout the rest of the summer," Perron said. "My body is feeling great. Everything is good. It's up to me to bounce back for a better season. I want to show up to camp and really show them the work I've put in in the summer and go from there."

If he can do it, Perron's spot in the Penguins' top six, be it on the left or right side, with Crosby or Malkin, should be secure regardless of Kessel's presence.

If he can do it, Pittsburgh will be better, because the importance of a strong season from Perron didn't go down when Rutherford acquired Kessel. If anything, the need for reliable secondary scoring gained importance, because the Penguins risk being too top heavy without it.

"It's up to me to prove this year that I can do it, that I can be a positive factor every single night," Perron said. "I'll fit in wherever I fit in and I'll work from there. I'll battle for ice time and I'll battle for quality time with the top guys on the power play. If you put in the work you're going to be rewarded. That's what I'm going to do."


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