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With Kessel, Penguins primed for longer playoff run

by Wes Crosby continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' hopes of a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs were undone by an uncharacteristically sluggish offense.

General manager Jim Rutherford sought to rectify that during the offseason.

After seeing several Penguins, including veteran defenseman Paul Martin, sign elsewhere shortly after free agency opened at noon on July 1, Pittsburgh made arguably the day's most explosive move when it acquired Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel in a trade shortly before 2 p.m.

After being eliminated in five games by the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round, Rutherford said he would bring in at least one top-six wing, most likely by trade, to help Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"We set out this offseason to add some more skill on the wing, some more speed," Rutherford said. "I certainly think we covered that."

Rutherford was able to acquire the five-time 30-goal scorer without surrendering either Olli Maatta or Derrick Pouliot, two young defensemen who are cornerstones of the Penguins' future. Rutherford landed the player he wanted at the price he wanted.

"It's hard to find guys like Pouliot," Rutherford said. "He's a guy that, as he matures, is going to be an important guy on our power play and he's a guy we didn't want to let go."

Rutherford worked later in July to retool a bottom-six group that has been an Achilles heel since the Penguins last won the Stanley Cup in 2009.

Forward Eric Fehr, who showcased his talent by scoring three goals in four games against the Penguins for the Washington Capitals last season, was signed to a three-year, $6 million contract on July 28.

On the same day, Rutherford worked with the Vancouver Canucks on a trade that had been discussed since before the 2015 NHL Draft, acquiring forward Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening and a second-round pick at the 2016 draft from Vancouver for third-line center Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third-round pick.

With the trade, Pittsburgh cleared Sutter's $3.3 million NHL salary-cap charge and added a suitable replacement. The new-found cap space granted the Penguins the ability to sign Fehr, essentially plugging two solid pieces into the bottom six by leveraging Sutter.

"Based on what we went through with injuries last year, I like our depth at forward now," Rutherford said. "I believe with the system that [coach Mike Johnston] uses, we're going to have an aggressive, fast team."

The offseason additions, which include the signings of Russian forward Sergei Plotnikov and veteran forward Matt Cullen, are aimed to reintroduce the firepower that has characterized the Penguins since Crosby and Malkin became their top two centers nearly a decade ago.

That firepower was noticeably absent through the final month of last season, when Pittsburgh averaged 1.61 regulation goals over its final 18 games before failing to score more than one goal in all but one of its five games of the first-round loss to the Rangers. The offense was relegated to one line, led by Crosby and right wing Patric Hornqvist; the bottom six routinely trudged through the five games, and the second line failed to cope with Malkin's sprained ankle.

"I think that we've got a ton of depth and [Kessel] just adds to that," Crosby told the Penguins website. "We all know he can score. He's got great speed and hopefully that's something where when they're trying to cover one guy, someone else is going to be open. And I think with the depth that we have, it shouldn't be easy to match up against us. So whatever the line combinations are, whoever ends up playing together, we're going to have some really good balance there and he's going to add a lot to that."

Malkin should be healthy for the start of the season, as should Hornqvist, who played through the playoffs with a broken rib. Their return to full health could be as valuable as Rutherford's acquisitions.

The same could be said for forward Pascal Dupuis, whose career was in peril when a blood clot finished his 15th NHL season after 16 games. Dupuis has played 55 games over the past two seasons; a torn ACL ended his 2013-14 season on Dec. 23.

If Dupuis is able to make the return some doubted would occur, he'll most likely find himself in the bottom six.

"Physically, I'm feeling great," Dupuis said. "I would have said I feel where I should be normally in a normal summer, but I feel like I'm ahead already. I've been training for 10 months straight … and I didn't get the wear and tear of a whole season. My knee is 100 percent right now. I'm well-rested.

"A 36-year-old who's well-rested, I don't how that will do, but that's how I feel."

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