The Penguins open 2015 training camp Friday morning at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. The team will hit the ice for practice Friday, Saturday and Sunday before playing their first preseason contest in Columbus on Monday.
Here are the six biggest storylines to follow as training camp and the preseason rolls forward.
COMPETITION ON D Pens general manager Jim Rutherford said the team plans on keeping eight defensemen to start the regular season. But which eight will be determined over the next couple of weeks. Ian Cole, Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Olli Maatta and Rob Scuderi seem to be locks for spots. That leaves three openings for the rest of the invitees to fill. Leading the charge will be Niclas Andersen, Adam Clendening, Brian Dumoulin, Tim Erixon, Sergei Gonchar, Steve Oleksy and Derrick Pouliot. The competition will be fierce.
GONCHAR That being said, all eyes will be on the 15-year veteran Gonchar. Many Pens fans still harbor glowing memories of his first tenure in Pittsburgh from 2005-10, which included a Stanley Cup title in 2009 and two Cup Final appearances. Gonchar’s intelligence and poise are the highest on the team, and his skills as a power-play quarterback could make him an excellent option. However, the question is if he still has enough left in the tank to earn a job.
FIGHTING FOR ROLES AT FORWARD The Pens vastly improved their forward group during the offseason, most notably with the addition of superstar winger Phil Kessel. But the question remains as to how the forwards will be combined and used. The Pens will being by using pairs of forwards and experimenting with a third player on the line. To open camp, Kessel will play with Sidney Crosby while Patric Hornqvist will be with Evgeni Malkin. Who will be on the left side and fill out the bottom-6 will be fleshed out in camp.
KESSEL WITH SID OR GENO Although Kessel will begin camp with Crosby as his center, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where he will start the season. Head coach Mike Johnston thinks Kessel would fit well with either centerman because they both play with pace, speed and like to give-and-go. Regardless of where he finally lands, Kessel will be another dynamic player on a dynamic team.
DUPUIS, LETANG, MAATTA RETURN Injuries have plagued the Pens over the past several years, and to key injuries. They’ve made adjustments to their training and fitness program to help limit those injuries this season. Three players missed significant playing time last season and they rehabbed over the summer. The team received great news Thursday following fitness testing when they learned that Kris Letang (concussion), Olli Maatta (shoulder) and Pascal Dupuis (blood clot) have all been cleared for full contact practice. While that is fantastic news, the trio will have a lot of rust to knock off, especially Dupuis – who has played in just 16 games in the past 20-plus months.
SPECIAL TEAMS The Pens penalty kill has ranked among the best in the NHL over the past few seasons, including finishing 3rd last year with an 84.8-percent success rate. Their power play, however, struggled following a ridiculously effective start. The addition of Kessel and his right-hand shot from the left side and 66-career power-play goals should add a jolt of life to the man-advantage. And if Gonchar makes the team and still has the ability to be a power-play QB, then Pittsburgh has the potential to really make some noise.