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30 in 30

Inside look at Pittsburgh Penguins

Defending Cup champs bring back familiar cast in bid to repeat

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After going through a roster rebuild that spanned the better part of two seasons and helped them win the Stanley Cup last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins like their chances to repeat as champions. 

"I certainly am not anxious to make changes right now," said general manager Jim Rutherford, who signed a contract extenion this offseason that runs through 2018-19. "If we have to make any adjustments, we'll do it in maybe December or January. Hopefully we don't have to make any."

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The Penguins were quiet in free agency, bringing back defenseman Justin Schultz and veteran forward Matt Cullen, each on a one-year contract; Schultz will earn $1.4 million this season and Cullen $1 million. Those moves, along with trading forward Beau Bennett to the New Jersey Devils for a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, and defenseman Ben Lovejoy signing with the Devils as a free agent, have been the most eye-opening developments of the past two months.

Cullen, who had 32 points (16 goals, 16 assists) last season, considered retirement for about two weeks before expressing interest in returning for a 19th NHL season. The 39-year-old signed Aug. 17, which gives coach Mike Sullivan the option of preserving the same four lines that won the Stanley Cup.

The returning group fits Sullivan's aggressive style, with each line playing a fast, straight-ahead game. The "HBK Line" of Nick Bonino centering Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, probably the best example of the Penguins' speed and depth, was Pittsburgh's most productive line during the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite being considered its third line by many. Kessel could miss the start of the season recovering from hand surgery he had on July 8.

"The pressure is always going to fall more on your star players," Rutherford said. "They're going to play big minutes, they're going to play in the toughest situations, and if you can get guys on your third or fourth lines winning games for you, then you're well on your way to having a good team. That's what we'll continue to do. We'll try to build as much balance throughout the lineup as we can."

Cullen excelled as the fourth-line center between left wing Tom Kuhnhackl and right wing Eric Fehr throughout the playoffs, tying his NHL career high of four postseason goals from 2006, when he won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Video: Matt Cullen Returning to NHL for 2016-'17 Season

Assistant general manager Bill Guerin said he was glad Cullen chose not to retire; that should eliminate any lingering questions that come with walking away after a strong season.

"I think you just don't know until you get there, but when you're that close, it's also tough to keep it in perspective that once it's gone, it's gone," Guerin said. "Because if you retire, if you quit, if you do whatever, six months down the road, you're not going to be able to just say 'Oh, I'm going to just play again.' No, you're done."

After Lovejoy's departure, the return of Schultz preserves some stability along the blue line. Schultz, Kris Letang, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole and Brian Dumoulin likely will fill the six spots in Pittsburgh's dynamic defense.

Defenseman Derrick Pouliot, going into his third NHL season, could earn regular playing time with a strong training camp. If so, the 22-year-old has the talent to possibly fit into one of Pittsburgh's three pairs sometime during the season.

The Penguins worked to build more defensive depth early in the offseason, re-signing Steve Oleksy and signing David Warsofsky, Stuart Percy, Cameron Gaunce and Chad Ruhwedel. Defenseman Tim Erixon was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract.

"Getting Warsofsky back was good. [Sullivan] likes him," Rutherford said. "He can play in certain situations. And Oleksy was a key guy for us. Erixon was another one. I give him a lot of credit. He had a chance to go to Russia and make a lot more money. He'd really like to get back to the NHL. He has some work to do. He's got to build up his lower body, get a half of a step, but he's a smart player and if he has a good summer, he could find a spot on our team."

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