COMMENTARY | With roughly a month to go until the NHL season begins and a calendar that reads closer to Labor Day than Christmas, the Pittsburgh Penguins are set to open training camp for the (full) 2013-14 season.
Starting Wednesday, Pittsburgh will begin the process of whittling down a 55-man roster of veterans and hopefuls into a group they hope will extend their run of success to eight straight postseason appearances and a second straight division title, this time in the NHL's newly-appointed Metropolitan Division.
The 2013 postseason ended in disappointment and invited plenty of reason for change, as a group that the East's first seed and fielded a Who's Who of offensive talent managed just two goals in four games against Boston. This, after having scored at a record setting pace in the Quarterfinals and Semifinals.
Despite the letdown, the Penguins bet on continuity, heavily.
Excepting the the resignation of goaltending coach Gilles Meloche, the Pens kept their entire coaching staff in place, including Dan Bylsma and each of his assistants. Veteran bench boss Jacques Martin was added as a third assistant coach, possibly to assist Bylsma as he preps the U.S. Men's Olympic team but perhaps more to provide a sorely needed defensive voice.
Aside from long time wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy and three of GM Ray Shero's four trade deadline acquisitions, the Penguins roster remains nearly untouched. Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz each re-signed with the Penguins, leaving millions on the free agency table. The defense will return a top four that includes Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and the team's lone free agency splash in former Penguin Rob Scuderi.
All this continuity means that the incoming crop of hopefuls, which includes a number of experienced forwards and several talented but young defensemen, is going to find a hard go of it in cracking the 23-man NHL roster.
From the Pittsburgh Penguins website, the list of 55 camp invitees includes 31 forwards, 18 defensemen and six goaltenders.
The Penguins are nearly set at defense, where Letang, Scuderi, Orpik, and Martin comprise the team's assumed top-four and Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen (if he isn't moved in order to make the team cap compliant), Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo give the team NHL-level depth. Though the team has a number of talented defensive prospects, only Brian Dumoulin is likely to see any NHL time amongst a blue line populated with veterans.
At goaltender, the top two of Tomas Vokoun and Marc-Andre Fleury will remain, at least for this season. Each posted strong regular season numbers in the abbreviated 2013 season.
The only camp battles likely to produce a surprise roster spot will take place at forward, where the Penguins have to replace four outgoing players. The first line of Dupuis, Kunitz and Sidney Crosby will remain intact, but the certainty ends there. Veteran Jussi Jokinen and second-year player Beau Bennett figure to compete for the left wing role on Evgeni Malkin's line, and the third and fourth lines will need to be filled out around defensive mainstays Brandon Sutter and Craig Adams.
Sutter, Adams, Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass and one of either Bennett or Jokinen will make up five of the bottom six forwards, with Dustin Jeffrey figuring to push for a regular spot. However, these spots are the likeliest to be up for grabs.
The Penguins locked down the core of their roster from a year ago, betting that the Boston series was an aberration to the rest of their season, which included the second-best record in the NHL and produced the most goals of the league's 30 teams.
Bylsma's challenge now is to fill out the complimentary pieces of his roster under a lowered salary cap ceiling and with the job of coaching the Men's Olympic team looming.
James Conley covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Yahoo Contributor Network and is an editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. He has attended Penguins home games with credentials.
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