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Crosby has faith in new-look Penguins

Captain says two-time defending champions can rely on 'experienced guys'

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Sidney Crosby realizes the Pittsburgh Penguins lost several key pieces during the offseason. That won't make the captain panic, though.

Even with forwards Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), defenseman Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas Golden Knights) gone from the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, Crosby remains confident entering this season.

"[The players we have lost] are experienced guys, so I think that there's going to be roles that change and expand," Crosby said Friday at the opening of training camp. "That being said, you can take some lessons from those guys here that are great, veteran guys who provide a lot of leadership. There are guys that are going to kind of step into those roles. 

"So, I think part of it is learning and part of it is looking at it as an opportunity for guys to step in."

Crosby did not mention specific players, but the Penguins return a veteran core that includes him, center Evgeni Malkin, defenseman Kris Letang and forward Patric Hornqvist.

The Penguins are in a slightly different position than they were a year ago, when they kept their roster intact after winning the Stanley Cup. This time, Pittsburgh has a few new players, including defenseman Matt Hunwick, who signed a three-year, $6.75 million contract (average annual value of $2.25 million) July 1, and goalie Antti Niemi, who signed a one-year, $700,000 contract that day and will back up Matt Murray.

The newcomers will have to overcome a learning curve.

"I think our returning players have a lot of familiarity with how we're trying to play," coach Mike Sullivan said. "The new guys, there will be some new strategies and new tactics that we're going to introduce to them that will be a part of the learning process."

Rookie forward Zachary Aston-Reese, 23, could take over for Kunitz if he has a strong camp. Aston-Reese (6-foot, 204 pounds) has a similar build to Kunitz (6-foot, 195) and plays a similarly aggressive style around the crease. He skated with Malkin and right wing Phil Kessel on Friday.

Video: Sidney Crosby lands the No. 2 spot

The most notable change is probably Fleury's absence. But though Crosby said it was "a little weird" to open camp without the goalie, who won three championships during 13 seasons with the Penguins, Fleury's departure (he was selected by the Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft) likely won't have the biggest impact.

Third-line center is another story. 

Bonino vacated that position by signing with the Predators as a free agent July 1. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said that day the search could carry into the regular season.

The Penguins were without a definitive third-line center Friday. That could change in the coming weeks, but there is a real possibility Rutherford won't make a trade before they open the season against the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 4.

Rutherford said he doesn't feel rushed, though. The Penguins are comfortable leaning on Crosby and Malkin, with forward Carter Rowney possibly taking over Cullen's old spot at fourth-line center, until a trade is made.

"[Having Crosby and Malkin is] why I don't have to be pressured or get in a hurry to have one for opening night," Rutherford said. "When you have those two centers, they carry the load. Then Carter Rowney really came along and we have confidence in him too. … I believe we have to have the right fit, the right guy, to go into that position."

Rutherford said he is considering acquiring one of three players to fill the spot. He believes one or two of those three, who he did not name, will become available, possibly before the season.

"There are guys out there that we've talked about," Rutherford said. "I probably could've made a deal by now."

Pittsburgh could move forward Jake Guentzel off Crosby's left wing to center, but Rutherford would rather not explore that possibility.

Video: PIT@NSH, Gm3: Guentzel slides a rebound five-hole

"If it's short-term, it's OK, but it kind of mixes up what we're trying to do with our lines," he said. "The good thing about that is, there's an option there. There is a guy that can move to that position. We're talking right now when everybody's healthy. We have a bigger issue if we get an injury at center. 

"So, that's an option, but we'd prefer Jake to play the wing and continue on building what Sid and him did last year." 

Guentzel broke out as a rookie while playing next to Crosby, scoring 21 points (13 goals, eight assists) in 25 games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Crosby scored 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) in 24 games to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the second consecutive season, winning the Stanley Cup for a third time.

Crosby said he isn't focused on those accomplishments. Instead, he said winning with this retooled group is all that motivates him.

"I think you're motivated for each year and you have a window to be a professional hockey player," Crosby said. "I don't think you need to spend a lot of time looking back and comparing. You can do that when you're done playing."

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