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2013 Penguins Preview: Ready to Run?

John Toperzer

John has written for since 2003 and serves as the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Pirates. He’s worked for the Pirates for 17 years, written for the Penguins’ Web site as the first game-day editor, and rooted for the Steelers dating back to the Immaculate Reception.

Few NHL franchises rival Pittsburgh's top-end talent. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combine to give the Penguins the league's best 1-2 punch at center. Crosby nearly made it through the 48-game schedule unscathed until an errant puck deflection broke his jaw and forced him out of the final 12 regular-season contests. Even so, he finished just four points behind Martin St. Louis for the Art Ross Trophy with 56 points. The 2013-14 campaign is setting up for a career year for Crosby – especially now that he's 18 months removed from concussion concerns.

Malkin battled shoulder woes all season long and finished with nine goals and 33 points in 31 games. Not bad for most players, but a down year for the former MVP. The Russian saw considerable time playing in the KHL last season and the transition back to the smaller North American rinks seemed to affect him more than others. In any event, a summer off figures to help Malkin regain the slap shot which plays such a big role in his game.

Things didn't work out the way the organization intended after Boston shackled the Pens' offense in the Eastern Conference finals, but general manager Ray Shero refused the temptation to make wholesale changes. He could have easily listened to cynics but instead decided to keep the team's nucleus intact.

Shero inked Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang to long extensions and re-signed Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. In a surprising move, he signed UFA Rob Scuderi after the 34-year-old former Penguin spent the last four years in Los Angeles. Perhaps his most controversial move was to keep coach Dan Bylsma around. Since stepping in for Michel Therrien in the middle of the 2008-09 and winning the Stanley Cup, Bylsma-led teams have won all of three playoff series in four seasons.

A questionable move made by the organization was to keep Marc-Andre Fleury around as the No. 1 netminder. Veteran backup Tomas Vokoun took over for Fleury early in the postseason after the Flower wilted once again. Figuring out just which goalie sees the majority of time in 2013-14 remains one of the team's biggest on-ice question marks.

Gone from Pittsburgh is its entire third line from just two years ago. Jordan Staal left a season ago. Matt Cooke signed with Minnesota and Tyler Kennedy was dealt to San Jose.

Youngsters Beau Bennett and Simon Despres will be looked upon to take their respective games to higher levels. Bennett could see time with Malkin and James Neal while Despres could conceivably crack the top-four (or at least take regular shifts). Both have the potential to impact fantasy in the coming season.

The Big Guns

Sidney Crosby (C): With 56 points (15G, 41A) in 36 games, Crosby finished tied for third in NHL scoring despite missing one-quarter of the 2012-13 season. His primary injury -- a broken jaw -- was of the fluke variety. More importantly, he managed to stay concussion-free for the entire year. Despite playing at less than 100 percent for much of the time since the 2010 Winter Classic, Crosby has compiled 55 goals and 159 points in his last 99 games, good for a 1.61 point/game mark. In fact, he's tallied more assists (104) than games played (99) over that span. With another season removed from his concussion woes and the Pens re-signing Crosby's linemates (Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz) in the summer, the star centerman is primed for a huge campaign at age 26. He could quite easily challenge his career point mark of 120 in 2013-14 -- provided he stays healthy, of course.

Evgeni Malkin (C): Malkin sabotaged more than one fantasy team in 2012-13 with his uneven play and disappointing results. The 2011-12 Art Ross Trophy winner stumbled to just nine goals and 33 points in 31 games. Fortunately, more than half of his point total came courtesy of the power play (4G, 14A). A shoulder injury effectively sapped the threat of his slap shot, limiting the arsenal of Malkin's typical weaponry. After playing a heavy slate of KHL contests during the NHL work stoppage, the star center figures to benefit from a summer of rest even more than other players. There's no reason why Malkin can't rebound with a big season. At 27, he's in the prime of his career.

Kris Letang (D): The Penguins have 58 million reasons to expect big things from Letang for the next seven years. After signing the offensive defenseman to a long extension, the team will look for Letang to produce from the back line and add maturity to his overall game. Despite missing 13 games, his 38 points (5G, 33A) tied PK Subban for most among all NHL defenders. With 80 points in his last 86 contests, there's little doubt Letang produces at an elite level when healthy. He's battled concussion and leg issues the past couple seasons, but there's no reason to expect any sort of fall off from the 26-year-old blueliner -- so long as he stays healthy.

On The Rise

Beau Bennett (RW): Bennett made a surprisingly seamless transition to the NHL in 2012-13, putting up three goals and 14 points in 26 contests despite only having played in 39 AHL games. The California native had missed much of the previous campaign with a wrist injury that sapped much of the power from his slap shot. Coach Dan Bylsma said in the offseason that Bennett would see time with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, but he would also play on the third line. The Penguins coach added that he envisions putting the No. 1 draft pick on the top power-play unit -- something that would further boost his fantasy value. Bennett is Pittsburgh's top offensive prospect and probably has more untapped talent than any of the team's top-nine forwards.

Simon Despres (D): Despres continues to slowly gain coach Dan Bylsma's trust, seeing action in 33 games last year after playing 18 times in 2011-12. Bylsma has yet to award the first-round draft pick with consistent shifts, however -- he averaged just over 15 minutes of action (15:06 TOI) when he did play. That could change in the coming season. Despres moves the puck well with above average vision and has an offensive flair. He compiled just seven points (2G, 5A) in 33 games with Pittsburgh, but the upside is there. He's worth a look as an end-game pick.

Two to Watch

Brian Dumoulin (D): Acquired from Carolina in the draft-day Jordan Staal trade of 2012, Dumoulin was thought to be more of a defensive-defenseman when the Pens picked him up. After making his AHL debut for the Baby Pens, however, there's a chance he could contribute offensively someday in the NHL. In 2012-13, Dumoulin scored 23 points (6G, 17A) in 73 regular-season games and then added two goals and eight points in 15 postseason contests. Because his defensive skills are so advanced, he rates highly on the list of Pittsburgh's blue line prospects ready to make an NHL impact. His perceived upside at the offensive end of the rink isn't as high as Derrick Pouliot or Simon Despres, but he could make his debut for the Pens as soon as in 2013-14.

Jussi Jokinen (C): Jokinen burst onto Pittsburgh's scene in a big way last year after the team traded for him from Carolina. The forward passed through waivers only weeks before the deal because of a $3 million salary with two seasons left on it. He potted seven goals and 11 points in the final 10 games of the regular season, picking up his game at center while Sidney Crosby recovered from a broken jaw. Unfortunately, he cooled off after the hot start. He tallied three assists in eight games and battled through a knee injury in the postseason. On a healthy Penguins squad, Jokinen is little more than a complementary player. Of course, injuries seem to follow Crosby and Evgeni Malkin around -- something that would crack the door of opportunity for Jokinen.

Don't Overrate

Chris Kunitz (LW): Kunitz eclipsed the point-per-game mark for the first time in 2012-13, netting 22 goals and 52 points in 48 contests. He also contributed with 16 power-play points (9G, 7A) and finished second among top-50 scorers with 104 hits. A late-season slowdown -- 13 points in his final 20 contests -- is a warning to fantasy owners not to overvalue him on draft day, however. Kunitz will likely skate with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis once again, giving him plenty of value as a multi-category player. That said, expecting more than 60 points out of the 34-year-old would probably be a mistake.

Top Prospects

Derrick Pouliot (D): Pouliot will get his first taste of pro action in 2013-14. He averaged just over a point per game with the WHL Portland Winterhawks (45 points in 44 games), scoring at a higher rate than teammate Seth Jones (56 points in 61 games). Pouliot is all about offense and projects as a big-time fantasy player in Pittsburgh. Taken seventh overall in the 2012 draft, the left-handed shooting blueliner will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming seasons. He'll likely hone his skills with the Baby Penguins in 2013-14 with a shot at making the NHL team as soon as 2014-15.

Olli Maatta (D): Maatta, a first-round pick in 2012, has exceeded expectations at the OHL level. Known mostly as a defensive defenseman, Maatta has posted strong offensive numbers in his two seasons with the London Knights. He scored 32 points (5G, 27A) in 58 games in his first year and 38 points (8G, 30A) in 58 contests last season. Maatta has played well in the postseason and, despite some defensive areas that still need work, appears on the fast track to Pittsburgh. He doesn't have the offensive potential of fellow first-round pick, Derrick Pouliot, yet it wouldn't be surprising to see him become a better two-way player.

Anton Zlobin (F): Zlobin has rocketed up the Pens' prospect list with an impressive showing in the QMJHL. The 20-year-old Russian native compiled 91 points (29G, 62A) in 61 games for Val d'Or. Provided Zlobin continues to progress in 2013-14, it wouldn't be surprising to see him in training camp in another year. Pittsburgh has little in the way of offensive prospects and Zlobin could be line for a fast track to the NHL. The 2012 sixth-round draft pick could turn out to be a pleasant surprise for the Penguins and fantasy owners, alike.