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Rutherford optimistic Penguins can overcome injuries for start of season

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, Aug. 29, 2016, 11:51 a.m.
Phil Kessel skates with the Stanley Cup after a Game 6 win over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday, June 12, 2016, at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Phil Kessel skates with the Stanley Cup after a Game 6 win over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday, June 12, 2016, at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.
Phil Kessel, a durable player who has not missed a game in six years, underwent surgery for an injured hand July 7.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Phil Kessel, a durable player who has not missed a game in six years, underwent surgery for an injured hand July 7.

General manager Jim Rutherford expressed optimism that his team's injured players, including star winger Phil Kessel, would be ready for the start of the season, but he said he could make no guarantees until the players arrived in town for further evaluation.

“At this point, based on where he's tracking, (Kessel will be ready for the start of the season), but with surgery like that, you can't say 100 percent for sure,” Rutherford said Monday at the team's annual preseason golf tournament at St. Clair Country Club. “But even if it's not for the start of the season, it wouldn't be that much time.”

Kessel, one of the NHL's most durable players who hasn't missed a game in six years, had surgery to repair an injured hand July 7.

As with most teams who make a long run to a Stanley Cup championship, the Penguins had a handful of lineup regulars playing through significant injuries in last season's playoffs.

Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

Rutherford expressed optimism that all will be ready for the season opener Oct. 13 against the Washington Capitals.

“All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won't know 100 percent where they're at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

Complicating the injury recovery process is the length of the offseason. The Penguins wrapped up their quest for the Cup on June 12 and will begin defending it when training camp opens in less than a month.

On top of that, six Penguins players — Sidney Crosby, Matt Murray, Olli Maatta, Carl Hagelin, Malkin and Hornqvist — are scheduled to play in the World Cup of Hockey, which begins with the opening of training camps Sept. 5.

A lack of recovery time, more than complacency or any holes in his roster, is Rutherford's chief concern heading into the season, he said.

“You always have a concern about the recovery period. Are guys 100 percent ready to go?” Rutherford said. “They may be right at the start of the year and then you hit a little lull. But teams are going to do that anyways. I think that with our depth, we should be able to work our way through it.”

Also complicating the beginning of the Penguins' title defense will be coach Mike Sullivan's role in the World Cup, which has its championship game scheduled for Oct. 1. Sullivan, who will be an assistant coach for Team USA, will miss the beginning of Penguins training camp.

Rutherford said Sullivan and the coaching staff had a three-day meeting last week to plan for his absence.

“They walked through all the things, like, when he's away and who's going to handle what, so they're very well-prepared for it,” Rutherford said. “But it's different, for sure.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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