2015-16 season preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

For the second summer in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins have undergone a significant makeover. But if last summer was more about the team's structure with general manager Jim Rutherford taking over and installing Mike Johnston behind the bench, this summer Rutherford has addressed significant needs in terms of the team's third- and fourth-line depth, bringing in Nick Bonino from the Vancouver Canucks and Eric Fehr from the Washington Capitals, along with veteran Matt Cullen, who was part of Rutherford's Stanley Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

Most notably, though, Rutherford confirmed he still has his fastball by adding one of the game's most prolific goal scorers in Phil Kessel.

"We have more speed up front," Rutherford said. "We have more guys who can score. We have more balance and depth among our forwards, which [is what] we were trying to do."

There are still questions about this team, most notably along the blue line, but once again the Penguins are trying to prove they are still one of the game's elite teams after being dumped in the first round last spring by the New York Rangers.


The Penguins couldn't afford to keep Brandon Sutter long-term so they dealt the two-way center to the Canucks for Bonino, who has 20-goal potential. Defenseman Adam Clendening also came in the deal. Cullen is nearing the end of a solid NHL career but can help out a secondary power-play unit and will be a welcome presence in the dressing room. Fehr will be out of action, recovering from elbow surgery likely until November, but he had 18 goals for the Capitals a season ago and brings a solid 200-foot presence. Steve Oleksy, another former Capital, is also looking to add depth on the blue line. Former Penguin Sergei Gonchar is in town on a tryout at age 41. Another interesting addition is big Russian winger Sergei Platnikov, who bought himself out of his final season of a Kontinental Hockey League contract and brings size and skill to the top-nine forwards. Kessel, of course, is the biggest addition and will likely start the season playing with Sidney Crosby after essentially being banished by the Toronto Maple Leafs.


The Penguins were dumped in five games in the first round of the playoffs in large part because they were without top-three defensemen Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff signed with the Los Angeles Kings, but Letang and Maatta are expected to form the team's top defensive duo. If they stay healthy, the Pens should be fine as both are elite defenders. If. Beyond that, opportunity is knocking for promising youngsters Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot to take on everyday roles on a blue line that is definitely in transition. Up front, it's not really a question of whether Kessel will score -- it's how often -- and, more to the point, can a team that lost four 2-1 games in the playoffs find the right combinations that will provide for scoring next spring when it really needs it?


We're not guaranteeing another scoring title for Crosby, but assuming good health it's almost a lock he will be in the hunt for an Art Ross and possibly another Hart Trophy. The captain told me he's pumped to have Kessel in the locker room regardless of how the line combinations work out. And while Marc-Andre Fleury has often been maligned, he remains one of the most durable and dependable of goaltenders; seven times, he has recorded at least 34 regular-season wins. And, finally, it will be an absolute shock if Kessel isn't north of 40 goals regardless of where he settles into the lineup and, if it's with Crosby, whoever ends up on the left side of that line (our guess is Chris Kunitz or David Perron).


Hard to imagine Crosby won't be named captain of the Canadian entry in the World Cup given he fulfilled that role for the gold-medal-winning Canadians in Sochi in 2014. Evgeni Malkin is a lock for the Russians while Kessel, likewise, is a lock to make the U.S. squad, and Olli Maatta should be a mainstay of the Finnish defensive corps. Fleury (Canada) and Letang (Canada) will get a look although Kunitz, a member of the gold-medal team in Sochi, seems a long-shot at best. Sergei Plotnikov will also get a look for the Russian team if he has a solid first NHL campaign with the Pens.


No key pieces of the Penguin roster are entering a contract year (with all due respect to Cullen, Perron and Ben Lovejoy), but Rutherford will have to figure out Maatta's value to the Pens as he will be a restricted free agent at season's end. Hint: the answer is "significant."


I'll give Letang and Maatta the benefit of the doubt health-wise, and this Pens' offensive group is going to be a bear to contain. Second in the Metropolitan Division.