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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Three Things the Penguins Need to Find Success by @griffTHW

With the Penguins' season set to begin tomorrow night, there's a buzz surrounding the club that we haven't seen in quite some time.  The arrival of Phil Kessel coupled with the jettison of dead weight "depth" and the subsequent influx of a competent bottom-six has fans actually excited about the Pens again.  And, why wouldn't they be?  After all, with this collection of talent, the team may well lead the league in scoring.

Despite all the hype, though, a cloud of uncertainty still hovers over Consol Energy Center.  Sure, Pittsburgh should score in bunches.  Can they, however, keep the puck out of their own net? 

An unproven blue line has some worried that fire wagon hockey will prove the only path to success for these Penguins.  And, with as entertaining as that would be, it's not exactly a winning formula in today's NHL.

So, how will this roster find success?  What needs to happen for the Pens to rejoin the NHL's elite?  Below, we list three things that could help the cause:

Letang's Longevity

Much like an elite quarterback can mask the flaws of an offense in football, a dynamic, minute-eating defenseman can help hide deficiencies along the blue line behind him.  That's why, on a team littered with stars, Kris Letang may represent Pittsburgh's most indispensable skater this year.  Yes, the Pens will also need Olli Maatta to remain healthy and turn in an impressive campaign, but it's Letang that will ultimately lead a group that many are doubting.

Everyone knows about Letang's offensive prowess.  It was on full display last year when, in only 69 games, he piled up 11 goals and 54 points, good for seventh among all defenseman.  His propensity for joining the rush and contributing to the attack rivals virtually anyone.

But there's more to the former-Norris Trophy finalist's game than simply serving as an "offensive defenseman".  Take, for instance, his ability to dig pucks out deep in the defensive zone and jump start the transition game.  A talent the casual fan may not always notice, it makes life so much easier on the forwards itching to burst out of their own end.  And, it's something the Penguins sorely missed when Letang found himself on the shelf last spring.

His ability to actually defend, though, may represent the most underrated aspect of Letang's game.  Night after night, the star blue liner goes up against the opposition's most talented individuals, playing with a touch of snarl.  And, more often than not, he comes away largely successful.  In fact, up until last year's team was subjected to virtually every hardship short of alien abduction, it was the supposed high-risk, high-reward defenseman helping to lead one of the league's stingiest defensive units.

If Letang can come close to replicating his play from last year while remaining healthy, it will go along way toward taking some of the pressure off the rest of a largely unproven blue line.  And, if he can accomplish that, the Penguins will have a much better chance of finding team success.

The Phil Factor

There's been a lot of talk surrounding whether or not Kessel can surpass the 40-goal plateau now that he'll skate alongside one of the game's premier centers; maybe he will, maybe he won't.  In reality, though, as long as he flirts with his career high of 37 tallies, the Pens will enjoy an uptick in production (Patric Hornqvist represented the only Pittsburgh winger to crack the 20-goal milestone when he potted 25 last year.)

Kessel's influence, however, will reach much farther than the number of times he ultimately finds the back of the net this year.

For starters, the addition of such a dynamic player will open up time and space for his linemates.  His underrated playmaking skills will serve to set the table for anyone he shares the ice with.  Pucks he fires on net will lead to juicy rebounds, begging for anyone driving the net to simply tap them home.  And, as a result, the Penguins should find the net more often, benefit from more scoring chances, and generate more power plays.

And, those man advantage situations may benefit from Kessel more than any other aspect of Pittsburgh's game.  Remember watching last year as the Pens initially torched short handed opponents at a potentially record setting pace, only to eventually witness the power play inexplicably morph into nothing more than a dumpster fire?  Well, that should change with Kessel in the fold.  At least the latter part.

You may not see Kessel unleashing one-timers from the left side of the ice like Alex Ovechkin but he will certainly provide the Pens with a lethal trigger man over there.  Perhaps more importantly, though, adding that right handed shot on the left side provides options.

For far too long, the Pittsburgh power play has run almost exclusively through Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin along the right side of the ice.  And, while it's great having the puck in the hands of two of the most talented players in the world, such a formation really only utilizes half of the attacking zone in an efficient manner.  Throwing a player of Kessel's caliber opposite them, though, will provide balance, allowing the Penguins to attack from virtually anywhere and making the man advantage that much more potent.

Lastly, Kessel will indirectly impact the rest of the forward group, creating a sort of trickle down effect.  With his arrival pushing quality players down the depth chart, Pittsburgh will enjoy more...

Depth, Depth, Depth

In recent years, the Pens' bottom-six has proven incapable of supporting the rest of the team.  Not only did they fail to regularly chip in offensively, they often struggled to simply escape the defensive zone.

With sweeping changes this summer, however, those problems should reside in the rearview mirror.  Despite the recent news regarding Pascal Dupuis, the arrivals of Sergei Plotnikov, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cullen provide the kind of depth Pittsburgh hasn't enjoyed in years.

Now, with even more explosiveness on the top line coupled with additional depth, it's not hard to envision the Penguins tacking on a couple of 20 goal scorers to last year's total of four.  Perhaps more importantly, with four lines capable of finding the back of the net, opponents won't be able to exclusively key in on slowing down the Crosby and Malkin units.

What's more, a bottom-six capable of actually escaping the defensive zone and playing with the puck will relieve pressure on the rest of the team.  Not only will it make life easier for the Crosby unit, allowing the top line to escape some of the responsibility of always going toe-to-toe with an opponent's top players, but it could help alleviate some of the heat that unproven blue line will have to withstand.

And that can only help if the Penguins hope to climb back to the top of the Metropolitan this year.

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