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Penguins captain's 9th season begins with club battling expectations

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 10:57 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby tips the puck to himself during a scrimmage on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

Sidney Crosby sees time flashing before his eyes.

The Penguins open against New Jersey at Consol Energy Center on Thursday night, the beginning of their captain's ninth NHL season.

His goal — and the method for achieving it — remains the same as it was since his debut Oct. 5, 2005, at New Jersey.

Indeed, he thought about the Stanley Cup even then.

“You have to have it in mind,” Crosby said, “but you're not going to win the Cup (Thursday) night.

“Early in the season, I think work ethic is the biggest thing. As a team, you establish that early. I really do think every team is unique, and you have to go through things.”

The Penguins are definitely going through some things.

An injury to Kris Letang (lower body) will lead Olli Maatta to the lineup against the Devils, coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday.

Letang is on the injured reserve list until at least Tuesday, and Bylsma said Maatta is in the NHL to play — at least while Letang is unavailable.

Maatta, 19 and the second of two first-round draft picks in 2012, would start his career in the same building where the Penguins selected him 22nd overall.

Bylsma also said winger Chuck Kobasew, signed Wednesday for $550,000, is likely to play on a third line that will look nothing like it has in past seasons with the offseason departures of wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.

Kobasew, who arrived a training camp on a professional tryout contract, is a Penguin because of salary-cap space temporarily freed by the placement of backup goalie Tomas Vokoun (blood clot, out 3-to-4 months) and winger Matt D'Agostini (lower-body injury, out indefinitely) on the long-term injury (LTI) list.

Players on LTI do not count against the NHL's $64.3 million salary cap until their return, but they cannot play for 10 games and 24 days.

The Penguins, who are within about $100,000 of the cap, would have needed to make a trade to sign Kobasew if Vokoun was healthy. Instead, they can delay that move, or potentially avoid it if Vokoun is unable to play in the final season of his contract.

Kobasew practiced Wednesday on a potential third line that consisted of center Brandon Sutter and winger Beau Bennett, who was recalled from Wheeling (ECHL). Bennett was re-assigned Monday as part of a procedural move to provide the Penguins cap flexibility.

Bennett's recall Wednesday coincided with the reassignments of winger Chris Conner and defenseman Harrison Ruopp to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).

General manager Ray Shero, who anticipated a lengthy absence for Vokoun, was aware of the roster juggling given that this season is the first since 2005-06 that the salary cap is lower than for the previous campaign.

However, at the start of this week, nobody associated with the Penguins figured on the potential absence of right winger James Neal, whose attempt to practice failed Wednesday.

Neal, the regular sniper on center Evgeni Malkin's No. 2 scoring line, is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, Bylsma said.

The Penguins are again a Cup favorite, but they clearly are not themselves to start their pursuit of a second title since 2009.

“This team isn't last year's team,” Crosby said, referring to a squad that was upset by Boston — swept, actually — in the Eastern Conference final.

“The expectation is there; but if we would have won last year, what would we expect to happen? We'd still expect to win.

“It's easy to say it, though.”

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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