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Pittsburgh Penguins Face Big Preseason Questions

Pens Have Tough Decisions to Make in the Lead-up to the NHL Regular Season

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | It was about two minutes after the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins had finished shaking hands to end the Eastern Conference finals last season, when the Penguins fandom began debating what would happen next. General manager Ray Shero took care of the biggest questions, re-signing Pascal Dupuis, and offering generous long-term extensions to Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and coach Dan Bylsma.

Personnel decisions, however, weren't the only questions lingering over the Penguins after yet another earlier-than-expected exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs. As Pittsburgh gears up for its 47th season in the NHL, some unresolved issues still remain.

How will the Penguins get cap-compliant before the season?

As of the start of training camp, the Penguins were $1,098,333 over the salary cap according to, a deficit that must be reconciled before the puck drops on the season October 3. With a surplus of defensemen on Pittsburgh's roster, all eyes are looking for a trade of Matt Niskanen and his $2.3 million cap hit.

But Niskanen isn't the only one who could be marketed. Brooks Orpik enters the final year of his contract with a $3.75 million cap hit and a lot more marketability. Orpik has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to list eight teams to which he can refuse a trade. Kris Letang's no-trade clause doesn't kick in until his new contract takes effect next season. And Brandon Sutter could be shopped with his $2,066,667 cap hit.

Trading any blueliner may be tough, since the list of available free agents still on the market includes guys like Tomas Kaberle, Ian White, Ryan Whitney and Carlo Colaiacovo. With the addition of Jussi Jokinen, who can center the third line, Sutter may be the most expendable and marketable. After all, the only decent centers left on the market are Tim Connoly and Manny Malhotra, and about a dozen teams would upgrade with a player like Sutter.

Is Marc-Andre Fleury a lost cause?

If not for the lost cosmonaut that is Ilya Bryzgalov, the Penguins netminder would be under a lot more scrutiny as the biggest head case in NHL creases. Fleury has been an average goaltender during the past few regular seasons, and something approaching an abomination in the last two postseasons.

Enter a sports psychologist, who inspired Fleury enough to give up goals on the first three shots he saw in the first training camp scrimmage last week. While head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero have given Fleury the always-lacking-in-any-credibility vote of confidence, the leash must be short, especially with a proven backup in Tomas Vokoun who would be the number one goalie on about half the teams in the NHL.

The Penguins already have an NHL-ready backup in Jeff Zatkoff waiting in the wings, and they used their first pick in this summer's draft on goalie Tristan Jarry after signing college stalwart Eric Hartzell. Shero wouldn't be so ambitious with stockpiling elite goalie prospects if Fleury was an unquestioned long-term part of the team's core.

Who joins James Neal on Evgeni Malkin's line?

Neal has endorsed former first-round pick Beau Bennett as the final cog among the top six forwards, while Bylsma has hinted that Jokinen might be a nice fit playing alongside one of the league's top playmakers and one of its top snipers.

Bennett, as a right-handed shot, seems a more natural complement to Neal's left-handed shot. However, Bennett's NHL career shooting percentage of 10 percent pales next to Jokinen's top-six-worthy 13.5 percent. Jokinen is the better sniper, but is a better faceoff specialist and might benefit more from taking draws on the third line instead of playing second fiddle to Malkin.

Can Matt Cooke be replaced on the penalty kill?

The general thinking on Cooke was that you loved him on your team, and hated him on any other team. That is probably still true now that Cooke is donning the forest green sweater of the Minnesota Wild.

While Cooke may have been an average third-line contributor during his time in black and gold, he was seen as an exceptional penalty killer. But as often happens, perception didn't match reality. Cooke's CORSI rating while playing short-handed was an uninspiring -4.2, bested by Sutter (+17.5), Dustin Jeffrey (+14.4), Pascal Dupuis (+9.6), Craig Adams (+2.6) and Jokinen (-0.6). Those five will fill in admirably in Cooke's absence on the penalty-kill, and new addition Matt D'Agostini, who scored 21 goals with the St. Louis Blues in 2010-11, should be able to contribute as much on the third line.

Which prospect could make a surprising impact?

While the Penguins' roster is pretty much set for the season, save a possible trade, reality will kick in at some point, and injuries will force some of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Baby Pens to step in and contribute for the parent club.

The team's organizational depth at the blueline is well-known. Players like Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maata, Scott Harrington and Philip Samuelsson are just biding their time in the AHL until an opportunity presents itself. However, with players such as Simon Depres or Robert Bortuzzo likely to watch a lot of games from the press box this season, their chances will be few and far between.

More likely, it's one of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward who will be pressed into duty at some point this season. Players like Jayson Megna, Zach Sill and Riley Holzapfel have received a lot of attention, but it's rookie Anton Zlobin who may make the biggest impact. Zlobin, a native of Moscow, averaged 1.31 points per game over the last two seasons in the QMJHL for Shawinigan and Val D'Or. While that doesn't approach the 2.5 points per game that Sidney Crosby averaged for Rimouski of the QMJHL, it is comparable to the 1.5 that Dupuis averaged while skating his last two seasons for Shawinigan.

The Penguins also have scrappers in far-from-a-prospect Steve MacIntyre and Harry Zolneirczyk, and a good defensive forward who can kill penalties with Brian Gibbons.

Steve Wozniak has spent the better part of the last decade covering NHL and college hockey for assorted print and online media. Follow him on Twitter at @Wozinator.

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