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Depth Perception

Writing these season previews is the worst. Absolute drudgery. Formulaic, by-the-numbers journalism that every blogger living in their parents’ basement takes a swipe at.

If only there was some intrigue in the offseason that made reading/writing this thing worthwhile.

Yeah, if only.

Ok, so a tip of the cap to Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, easily the hardest-working guy in hockey the last three months. Finally, a chance to write a relevant, thought-provoking preview.

Let’s start with the basics.

WHO’S OUT?
Craig Adams, Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, Christian Ehrhoff, Thomas Greiss, Scott Harrington, Maxim Lapierre, Paul Martin, Nick Spaling, Brandon Sutter and Daniel Winnik.

WHO’S IN?
Phil Kessel, Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino, Sergei Gonchar, Sergei Plotnikov, Matt Cullen and Adam Clendening.

WHO’S BACK FROM EXTENDED INJURY?
Olli Maatta, Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang.

FORWARDS
Clearly, an entire preview could be dedicated to the addition of Kessel, a marquee NHL talent at right wing who is among the top five shooters and skaters in the game.

Suffice to say that with the tire fire that is the Toronto Maple Leafs firmly in his rearview mirror, Kessel should be primed for a career year.

Kessel and Sidney Crosby appear to have developed immediate chemistry. Go figure, right? Their combined speed and ability to read the play should be a nightmare for opponents.

What does that mean in terms of tangible numbers? If both are healthy, Kessel should eclipse 40 goals for the first time in his career and Crosby should run away with the scoring title.

Behind that epic first wave, the Penguins have been able to cobble together a fairly potent second line that features Evgeni Malkin and right wing Patric Hornqvist.

Which leads us to what easily emerged as the most intriguing plot line of training camp: Who will play left wing on the top two lines?

Expect Chris Kunitz to reclaim that role with Crosby and Kessel, where he could easily produce 20-25 goals after a dismal 2014-15.
Penguins Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornquist
The Penguins appear more willing to experiment, at least early on, when it comes to who will play with Malkin and Hornqvist. Malkin’s countryman, Plotnikov, may get a look early in the season, but veteran David Perron figures to be a solid alternative.

With Fehr sidelined until November while recovering from elbow surgery, and Dupuis out until roughly the same time, the third line will likely feature Bonino centering Beau Bennett and some combination of Plotnikov, Perron or 18-year-old Daniel Sprong.

That would leave a fourth line consisting of Cullen and Conor Sheary/Scott Wilson/Bryan Rust.

Sprong will get at least a nine-game trial before the team has to decide whether or not to send him back to juniors. It may take a few weeks, and some up-and-down from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, to sort out the bottom six.

DEFENSE
Rutherford has indicated the Penguins will enter the regular season with eight defensemen.

Letang, Maatta, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy are the top five, leaving Scuderi, Clendening and Tim Erixon to fight for the remaining spot on the third unit.

Pouliot was a surprise cut after a quiet preseason, as the coaching staff apparently needs to see more consistency from a prospect with the potential to play a top-four role. Gonchar, despite having a ton of respect in the locker room, also didn’t make the cut.

If Letang can stay healthy for an entire season, as unlikely as that scenario might seem, he could be the Penguins first Norris Trophy winner since Randy Carlyle (1980-81).

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Penguins power play should be lethal. Letang will be the top unit’s only true point man. Kessel will work the left wall with Malkin on the right and Crosby serving as the fulcrum. Hornqvist will assume his role as agitator and garbage collector in front of the net.

If the NHL actually instructs referees to call penalties as they were originally conceived, records – of the team and league variety – could be rewritten. And no team will benefit more from the league’s adoption of 3-on-3 overtime.

The Penguins finished last season ranked third overall on the penalty kill and there’s no reason to expect significant regression. Johnston has also indicated that Crosby and Malkin will see more time in a penalty-killing role.

GOALTENDERS
Marc-Andre Fleury is arguably coming off his best regular season and remains one of the league’s elite netminders.

The Penguins believe AHL wunderkind Matt Murray is a better goaltender than Jeff Zatkoff, but they don’t want the 21-year-old sitting for 60 games. Expect Zatkoff to serve as the backup this year, with Murray making the jump to the big club next season.

PROGNOSIS
Rutherford has given the Penguins their best chance to return to the Stanley Cup since winning it all in 2008-09. The team has boldly moved into the analytics age and improved more than any other franchise in the offseason.
Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury
By adding considerable skill to the bottom six forwards, Crosby and Malkin won’t have to do all the heavy lifting come playoff time. Lack of defensive depth could be their undoing, however, particularly if Letang or Maatta go down for any significant length of time.

Many mocked the Penguins when they hired Rutherford to replace Ray Shero. I wonder who will be laughing if they raise silver in June?

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