Penguins hoping more depth behind stars leads to deeper run
PITTSBURGH (AP) Mike Johnston spent his first season coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins preaching the same message over and over to his talented but almost pathologically unselfish lineup:
Shoot the puck.
For long stretches in a maddening and injury-marred year that saw the Penguins meekly exit the playoffs in five games, that message appeared to fall on deaf ears. Pittsburgh ranked just 20th in scoring, an alarmingly low number for a team featuring two of the game's most dynamic talents in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
While Johnston appreciates a pretty play as much as anyone, he'd prefer more goal lights and not quite so many attempts at making the highlights.
That shouldn't be an issue anymore. Not with Phil Kessel at his disposal.
The talented forward's arrival in an offseason trade with Toronto should help take some of the pressure off Crosby and Malkin to carry the bulk of the offense. It also means Johnston probably won't have to tell Kessel twice to get the puck to the net. Last time Kessel checked, it's why he's getting paid.
After toiling for six years in the unique cauldron playing in Toronto provides with mixed results, the 28-year-old three-time All Star appears rejuvenated about that possibility working on the edge of the spotlight instead of right in the middle of it. Having one of the best passers on the ice with him certainly helps.
''Sid plays a quick game,'' Kessel said. ''Obviously he's a fast skater, he makes great plays. You've just got to get open for him.''
That shouldn't be an issue for the durable Kessel, who averaged 3.72 shots a game during his turbulent tenure with Toronto, more than Crosby (3.27) or Malkin (3.5) over that same span.
''He's got a great shot, he uses it well,'' Crosby said. ''Having a guy who can shoot the puck like that on that side, will certainly draw some attention.''
If the Penguins hope to bounce back after their worst regular season in a decade, Kessel will need to. He laughed off speculation about his conditioning - a point of contention in Toronto even though he hasn't missed a game in five years - and understands that playing alongside Crosby isn't exactly for the faint of heart.
Then again, the perks are nice.
''If you get open, the puck is going to come to you,'' Kessel said.
Better believe Kessel - whose career high of 37 goals should be attainable if everyone stays healthy - will be ready. It's a mindset the Penguins hope permeates the roster.
''That's got to be our mentality throughout regardless of the combinations,'' Crosby said.
Bringing in Kassel wasn't the only significant move by the Penguins over a summer in which general manager Jim Rutherford did what he could to give Crosby and Malkin plenty of help. Other things to look for as Pittsburgh tries to reclaim its spot atop the Eastern Conference's elite.
The Penguins' promising start under Johnston quickly derailed after a borderline absurd rash of injuries to forward Pascal Dupuis (blood clots) and defenseman Olli Maatta (shoulder). When defenseman Kris Letang went down with a concussion in late March against Arizona, the explosiveness evaporated completely. All three are back and eager to return to form.
While Kessel's acquisition drew headlines, Rutherford also went about restocking the bottom six hoping for a little more balance. Veteran Eric Fehr will be an upgrade for the fourth line whenever he returns from elbow surgery. Nick Bonino, acquired in a trade that sent Brandon Sutter to Vancouver, will anchor the third line and will have two dynamic skaters at his disposal in Dupuis and David Perron.
FROM RUSSIA WITH SPEED
The Penguins lured 25-year-old Russian forward Sergei Plotnikov away from the Kontinental Hockey League, where he had 145 points in 159 games over the last three seasons. Plotnikov's reward? Playing alongside fellow countryman Malkin, who knows a thing or two about making the move from Russia to North America.
''He understands, but sometimes he doesn't understand what coach says,'' Malkin said. ''I try to help. The first couple of weeks, he's been scared, maybe. But now he know the players . Now, I think everything is pretty easy.''
SPRONG HAS SPRUNG
Perhaps the most surprising development during training camp was the rapid rise of second-round pick Daniel Sprong. The 18-year-old made the roster - at least for the time being - by showcasing impressive speed and a fearlessness that quickly won over Johnston. Sprong, who scored three times in the preseason, can stick around for at least nine games before the Penguins have to decide whether to return him to the junior ranks.