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Pens must answer five questions

| Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008

Tribune-Review Penguins beat reporter Rob Rossi answers five questions that must be asked heading into training camp:

Q: What is Jordan Staal's role?

A: Staal, who turned 20 this past Wednesday, said after the Stanley Cup final that he "knows (he's) better than a third-liner." He craves scoring-line forward responsibility, and the Penguins will likely feed him that -- perhaps at left wing on a line with center Evgeni Malkin, where he scored 29 goals as a rookie, and in departed let wing Ryan Malone's old spot in front of the cage on the top power-play unit. Coaches praised Staal's defensive work as a shutdown center last season. His past chemistry with Malkin might have the Penguins dreaming of a combination similar to Detroit's same-line center tandem of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

Q: How can the Penguins make up for the loss of injured defenseman Ryan Whitney's offense?

A: Whitney is out until at least January after August surgery to correct a left-foot deformity. That leaves the Penguins down 12 goals (seven on the power play) and 40 points from a defense corps that relied on him and rock-steady Sergei Gonchar (at least 50 points in eight consecutive seasons) for 65.6 of its blue-line scoring last season. Kris Letang, a right-handed shooter who tallied six goals and recorded 17 points as a rookie, has the skill to make up for Whitney's loss. First, though, he has to earn a spot among the top six defensemen -- no easy chore given the presence of veterans Darryl Sydor and Mark Eaton.

Q: Will free-agent signees Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko make up for the departures of scoring-line forwards Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone?

A: Compare the career scoring averages for Satan (28 goals, 29 assists, 57 points) and Fedotenko (18, 17, 35) to those for Hossa (30, 35, 65) and Malone (22, 20, 42). The difference between the pairs is not great. Also, consider that Hossa was essentially a non-factor for the Penguins in the regular season. He played in only 12 games. Malone's career-best output last season (27, 24, 51) came in a contract-year. Satan and Fedotenko are working on one-year deals, and each has something to prove -- especially Satan, who scored at least 25 goals in eight consecutive seasons before netting only 16 with the offensively challenged New York Islanders last season.

Q: How long will it take to develop chemistry?

A: The Penguins morphed from a 58-point club in 2005-06 to one that came within two wins of the Stanley Cup last season. Superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are back, as are stars such as defenseman Sergei Gonchar and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. But gone are several respected veterans (forwards Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts) that played important parts in the two-year turnaround. Subtract a few quality role players (forward Adam Hall and goaltender Ty Conklin) and a stud scoring wing (Marian Hossa) that fueled the transformation to Cup contender, and the Penguins face the challenge of forming a bond to match the strong one that held them together through difficult times in the recent past. They have survived uneven first halves the past two seasons and want to start strong this year. Coming together in camp will go a long way toward achieving that objective.

Q: Are young stars ready to assume full responsibility of leadership?

A: They better be. Sidney Crosby is a second-year captain at 21. He can lean on top alternate Sergei Gonchar -- a quiet and calming veteran presence -- but his greatest support group is a cast of 20-somethings that seemingly have the Penguins on the brink of greatness. Hart Trophy/Art Ross Trophy runner-up Evgeni Malkin, 22, must assert himself as more than a willing sidekick to Crosby, and defenseman Ryan Whitney, 25, upon his return from injury, needs to develop a steely resolve to go with his good-natured demeanor. Bruising defenseman Brooks Orpik, 27, and do-it-all forward Max Talbot, 24, are ideal candidates to serve as an alternate captain. If Crosby is the heart of the Penguins, Orpik and Talbot combine to form the club's collective soul.

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