Preseason hockey is almost over as the Penguins play their 8th and final game against the Hurricanes tomorrow night in Raleigh. The start of the regular season is less than one week away, and while the roster hasn't been finalized yet a clearer picture of what the lineup will look like is starting to come into focus. A quick look at how the team is trending after the break:
The offseason moves gave the Penguins their deepest group of forwards on paper in a long time, and the early returns from the preseason games back up that notion. Kessel has come in and quickly meshed with Sidney Crosby, Sergei Plotnikov seems at home playing next to Evgeni Malkin, and the secondary scoring should be strong. The forwards have the look of a championship-caliber group.
Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel is looking to lay to rest the notion that it's difficult to adjust to playing with Sidney Crosby, and so far during preseason the duo has shown a chemistry that suggests they've played together for years. Early projections have Phil Kessel surpassing his career best of 37 goals (twice; 2011-12 and 2013-14), no small feat considering Tyler Bozak centered his line those seasons. Crosby should see a boost in numbers as well. Despite leading the league in points per game last season, Crosby saw his even strength pts/60 drop for the 4th consecutive season, and his 2.37 pts/60 marks the lowest total of his career. Kessel is arguably the most talented winger Crosby's ever had, and the line should have no trouble lighting the lamp this season.
When Daniel Sprong fell to the Penguins at the 46th overall pick, the team was able to get a first round talent despite having already traded away their pick. One of the few high end talents left in Pittsburgh's organizational pipeline, Sprong has been making a case to be a part of the present more than just a part of the future with a strong camp. Given the forward depth, it would be hard for Sprong to crack the lineup in Pittsburgh this season, but he's certainly forcing the conversation, and at this point it shouldn't be ruled out that he sees a cup of coffee in the NHL this year with a 9 game tryout.
The amount of attrition on the blueline might finally be catching up to the Penguins. After losing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen following the 2013-14 season, Simon Despres via trade during the 2014-15 offseason, and Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff this past offseason, the team has seen a number of players capable/trusted of handling top 4 minutes head elsewhere. The position was largely neglected during the offseason, and it's one that will need to be addressed if the Pens hope to make a deep run in the playoffs. While Kris Letang and Olli Maatta form an extremely talented top pair, the rest of the defenders would, at best, be third pairing defensemen on other contending teams. The forwards might be championship caliber, but the defensemen have "early tee time" written all over them.