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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Remember, Penguins are loaded

| Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, 8:36 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

Penguins training camp starts Friday. Begin with a basic truth: The Penguins are loaded.

After two straight Stanley Cups in 2016 and ’17, every hiccup since by the Penguins has led to paralysis by analysis.

Last season, the Penguins lost to the eventual champs in six games, and the final defeat came in OT. No shame there. Defenseman Kris Letang and goaltender Matt Murray had seasons that didn’t match their usual standard because of extenuating circumstances. Each figures to rebound. Mostly, the Penguins were fatigued. They played 307 games in three seasons.

Now, after what must have seemed a luxurious summer of rest, the Penguins are back, and they’re loaded.

The Penguins have hockey’s best 1-2 punch at center and six legit NHL centers. Success in the current era is built on goalies and centers.

How those centers are used is an issue. Forget about Derick Brassard on the wing. He’s not a wing. The best alignment puts Brassard at third-line center. Riley Sheahan centers the fourth line with Matt Cullen on left wing.

The top lines fall together nicely if last season’s overestimation of winger Dominik Simon doesn’t continue.

Sidney Crosby centers Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist. Evgeni Malkin skates between Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. Hagelin isn’t top-six-caliber skill-wise, but his speed, forecheck and defensive accountability make him a great fit with Malkin and Kessel.

After that, options abound.

Bryan Rust should play right wing but might play left wing to create a spot for Daniel Sprong on the right. Or won’t. Despite the promises of GM Jim Rutherford, coach Mike Sullivan hardly is sold on Sprong, who can’t dress if he skates any lower than third line. Sprong is a natural finisher, so using him on Crosby’s right to start the season should be tempting but isn’t.

Zach Aston-Reese fits somewhere. So does Simon. If it’s on Crosby’s right wing, everything gets reshuffled (and not for the better).

The forwards are a very strong group. Just about foolproof.

The defense is also talented. Vastly underestimated.

Even at low tide, Letang was one of the NHL’s top 10 defensemen last season. Brian Dumoulin is legit top-pair player, an ideal foil for Letang.

If Sullivan wants a No. 2 pair and a bottom pair, Justin Schultz skates with Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak goes with Jack Johnson. If Sullivan prefers balance, it’s Johnson-Schultz and Maatta-Oleksiak. Either way works.

That blue-line corps features a lot of quick puck movement. That’s crucial to the Penguins’ style. Letang is the workhorse and the one-man breakout. Johnson is being underestimated. Freed from the shackles and finger-pointing of Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella and reunited with prep school buddy Crosby, Johnson should excel on adrenaline alone.

Potential camp surprise: defenseman Juuso Riikola, signed out of the Finnish league. Management loves him. Riikola should at least be a solid left-handed spare.

The Penguins’ personnel should provide special teams excellence. But finishing 17th on the penalty-kill last season contrasts mightily with coming in No. 1 on the power play.

Murray has two Stanley Cups in less than three seasons. Goaltending is no headache unless Murray can’t stay healthy. That has been a problem.

Given the accomplishments of Rutherford and Sullivan, it’s tough to question roster assembly or player usage. Sullivan could be little less stubborn regarding certain philosophies and players. Perhaps not winning the Stanley Cup last season will facilitate that.

But, please remember: The Penguins are loaded. Any evaluation or prediction should be seen through that prism.

Also remember: Malkin is 32. Crosby and Letang are 31. Kessel is 30. If this season isn’t the Penguins’ last best chance, it’s likely close to it.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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