Malkin more than capable of solving most of the Penguins' problems
Friday, September 16, 2011

Fifty-five players are scheduled to be on hand when the Penguins conduct their first training camp workout Saturday morning at Consol Energy Center.

There will be nearly that many questions -- some major, some not -- facing the team as it prepares for the regular-season opener Oct. 6 in Vancouver.

Here's a look at five of the biggest:

1. Who's healthy enough to do what?

Sidney Crosby's recovery from a concussion has been the team's biggest issue since early January and will continue to be until he gets back on active duty, whenever that is.

Crosby, though, is not the only world-class center looking to make a comeback this season.

Evgeni Malkin is coming off reconstructive knee surgery and, unlike Crosby, long ago got clearance to participate fully in camp.

If Malkin -- who has done some of his finest work when Crosby has been out of the lineup -- is completely healed and can elevate his game to the level he has reached at times in recent years, he will pick up much of the slack caused by Crosby's absence, however long it lasts.

2. Will a new position restore James Neal's old touch?

Neal was brought in from Dallas in February to provide some badly needed scoring on the wings.

Didn't happen, though, as he got just two goals in 27 games.

But Neal, 24, has a history that suggests he can be counted on for 20-plus per season, and he'll try to do it this winter from a new position.

Coach Dan Bylsma said he plans to employ Neal, primarily used as a left winger during his career, on the right side, with Chris Kunitz and Crosby (when healthy) as his linemates.

Neal's shot and ability to operate in high-traffic areas are his greatest assets and, when they finally get together, Crosby should give him plenty of chances to launch pucks at the net.

3. How much will change on a power play that must improve its output?

It's hard to imagine the power play being any less productive than it was in 2010-11, so the bar for an upgrade isn't set terribly high.

Bylsma and his staff understand that better than most, so they plan to implement a number of personnel and tactical adjustments, including using a forward at one of the points and having a forward, not a defenseman, take primary responsibility for bringing the puck up ice.

The Penguins have the personnel to be a lethal unit, especially when Crosby is in the mix. Getting the power play to produce to its potential will be one of the priorities in training camp because of the difference it can make when real games begin.

4. Will the new Matt Cooke be as effective as the old one?

Cooke sat out the final 17 games of last season, including the seven-game loss to Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs, after driving an elbow into the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

Cooke long ago was labeled one of the NHL's dirtiest players, but his penchant for delivering cheap shots sometimes obscured the fact that he's a capable penalty-killer and solid two-way winger.

After undergoing counseling during his suspension, Cooke vowed to be more judicious on the ice, to exorcise bad -- and often dangerous -- decisions from his game.

The question is, can a guy who has played on (and over) the edge for so long make significant changes in his approach without having his performance suffer?

Hitting is an important element of Cooke's game. His challenge will be to retain his physicality, while eliminating the nasty, illegal and often costly checks with which he has become synonymous.

5. Can any newcomers earn a job?

Even if Crosby isn't not ready to play when the regular season begins -- at this point, there's no hard evidence to suggest he will be -- there are only a few roster spots up for grabs over the next few weeks.

When Bylsma projected the makeup of his forward units last weekend, the only opening was at center on the fourth line (although Crosby's absence obviously would create another, at least temporarily). Free-agent acquisitions Richard Park and Jason Williams should compete for that, along with Dustin Jeffrey and Mark Letestu.

Also, keep an eye on defenseman Alexandre Picard, 26, who has 236 NHL games on his resume.

Even though seven Penguins defensemen have one-way contracts, management seems intent on giving Picard a long look. If he earns a spot on the opening-night roster and there are no significant injuries in camp, someone who spent last season in the NHL might to be headed for Wilkes-Barre -- or the trading block.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at Dave Molinari:
Penguins Plus, a blog by Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson, is featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.
First published on September 16, 2011 at 12:00 am