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Answers to Penguins' 2013 questions

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Penguins defenseman Simon Despres plays in the Black and Gold game at Consol Energy Center on Jan. 16, 2013. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Here are some things to look out for as the Penguins get their season under way Saturday:

Is top defensive prospect Simon Despres ready for regular duty?

Probably not, but an abbreviated camp did not provide enough opportunity for anybody to knock him from the top six.

Despres, 21, will make mistakes, as he did Wednesday in the Black & Gold scrimmage. However, his upside is enticing to coaches, who thought he could contribute more than some regulars last season.

The range of likely defense partner Kris Letang will help cover for Despres, but his inclusion among the top six is more an indication that Robert Bortuzzo has not developed as hoped — and that Ben Lovejoy may be in coach Dan Bylsma's doghouse until he eventually leaves Pittsburgh.

Is this the defense corps of a Stanley Cup contender?

Not if Paul Martin doesn't start playing like the guy GM Ray Shero was happy to hand a five-year, $25 million contract in July 2010.

Teammates believe Martin will return to form, but in two seasons with the Penguins, he hasn't consistently looked like the savvy puck-moving maestro he was with New Jersey. If he channels his inner Devil, this defense will rate a lot stronger.

Anyway, who says this is the defense corps the Penguins will take into the playoffs? Their postseason Nos. 5-6 defensemen might not be with the club until after the trade deadline (April 3).

Shero has cap space with which to tinker, and he wins more than he loses at the deadline.

Seriously, Eric Tangradi and/or Tanner Glass are the best options to play with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal?

That is the case as of this weekend, but…

Do not dismiss the possibility that top forward prospect Beau Bennett will finish this season in the NHL. Coaches and management like his maturity and creativity with the puck — traits that would serve well anybody who plays with Malkin, who, though adaptable, is demanding on the ice.

Bennett did not disappoint during training camp. He was returned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) because the Penguins did not want to risk losing Tangradi and or Dustin Jeffrey on waivers.

The future left winger for Malkin and Neal is Bennett, and that future could come this season if he adds the 10 pounds he lost because of the flu and continues to handle his business in the AHL.

Of course, there is always the possibility of a trade — and, well, a Ryan (not Malone) is on the watch list of some.

“Captain Canada” Ryan Smyth, anybody?

Did coaches and players learn anything from losing to the Flyers last postseason?

Maybe a better question is did they learn enough?

To a man, coaches and players speak only generally of that series, offering statements that suggest they believe those horrid couple of April weeks were mostly an aberration.

Maybe that is actually the case?

The Penguins were two late-March wins against the Islanders — the Islanders! — from finishing with the most points in the NHL last season.

They finished with 108 points, one off the Rangers' East-topping total, despite playing 60 games without Sidney Crosby and a month without Jordan Staal.

This is a very good club.

It is also one that knows what went wrong against the Flyers.

On the wall in the Penguins' dressing room is this word: “Deasone.”

That isn't French, dear readers.

It stands for “De,” as in defense, and “as one,” as in everybody best commit to playing responsibly with and without the puck. The “De” and “asone” are bunched together for a reason. Coaches are emphasizing a team-wide commitment to defense.

The Penguins' best defense is keeping the puck away from other teams. That starts with their forwards, and it needs to start with Crosby and Malkin, who must realize the playoffs also are about the goals they help prevent.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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