Pittsburgh Penguins season preview: Offseason acquisitions fuel team’s expectations

Defenseman Kris Letang will need to play an integral role if the Pittsburgh Penguins look to rebound after last season's early exit from the playoffs.
Charles LeClaire/Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Plus: Pittsburgh created the biggest splash of the summer by acquiring Phil Kessel from Toronto in a blockbuster deal. The five-time, 30-goal scorer will be paired with two-time Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby on the team’s top line and adds to the club’s already potent power play. Evgeni Malkin enjoyed immediate chemistry with Patric Hornqvist in 2014-15, and the two haven’t missed a beat in the preseason with former Kontinental Hockey League forward Sergei Plotnikov on the second line.

Minus: While the Penguins focused on adding depth to their bottom-tier forwards, they didn’t feel the need to do the same with their defensive corps. After first pair blue-liners Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh will rely on Ian Cole and Brian Dumoulin to log significant minutes. The cupboard gets bare in a hurry as veterans Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy are major downgrades from the departed Paul Martin (San Jose) and Christian Ehrhoff (Los Angeles).

X-Factor: Kris Letang

Letang traditionally leads the Penguins in ice time and his ability to move the puck allows Crosby and company to work their magic. The problem stems when injuries — or a more severe medical situation (stroke) — creep into the life of the 28-year-old Letang, who has missed 89 games in the last three seasons. With Letang sidelined with a concussion, the Penguins appeared out of sync and mustered little en route to being ousted by the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.

Prediction: The offseason acquisitions of forwards Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino will provide additional depth for coach Mike Johnston. Pittsburgh will secure a playoff berth for the 10th straight season, but the lack of depth on the blue line will prove to be its undoing in another first-round-and-out performance.