Five Things To Expect From the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013

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Five Things To Expect From the Pittsburgh Penguins for the 2013 Season

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Charles LeClaire - US PRESSWIRE

The NHL lockout is over. The NHLPA and the league have agreed to the framework of a collective bargaining agreement that will last no less than eight years. The 2013 NHL season will likely begin on January 19 and the teams will probably play a 48-game season that includes plenty of games against division opponents and could cut out inter-conference play completely. What can we expect out of the Pittsburgh Penguins over those 48 games?

Head coach Dan Bylsma told the media today that the team's top line will feature Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis, while Evgeni Malkin and James Neal will play on the best "second" line in the league.

Some believe the team would be best served leaving Kunitz with Malkin and Neal and re-creating the line that helped Malkin win last season's Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer, but the Kunitz - Crosby - Dupuis line hasn't failed in the past.

Who exactly will play on Malkin's other wing is unknown at this point. Eric Tangradi could finally make the jump from the AHL to a full-time NHL player, but the 6'4" power forward has only recorded 10 goals and 17 points in 33 AHL games this season. Those numbers wouldn't even be acceptable as a top-six NHL forward if they translated directly.

The team could also take a look at Tyler Kennedy on Malkin's wing, but I would personally like to see that situation never develop. Ever. One darkhorse candidate for Malkin's empty wing could be Dustin Jeffrey. The 24-year-old has just 18 points in 51 NHL games over the last two seasons, but posted 116 points in 117 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins from 2009-2011. He has the wheels and the skillset to succeed at the NHL level, and while he may never become a true top six forward, he may be the Penguins' best option right now.

Take a look at the slide show to see what else we can expect from the Penguins during the 2013 season.

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Sidney Crosby Will Dominate

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Charles LeClaire - US PRESSWIRE

In all honesty, it doesn't matter who plays alongside Sidney Crosby. He'll post a ridiculous amount of points whether he's playing with Tyler Kennedy or Phil Kessel. It also doesn't matter that he hasn't played a game since mid-April. While most players who spent the lockout playing overseas will benefit from staying in game shape, Crosby was better off resting.

Besides, he's Sidney Crosby. He's permanently in game shape. And even if he's not, Sidney Crosby at 90% is better than 99% of the NHL. We saw that after he posted 11 points in his first five games back from a near 11-month injury layoff in November, and then nine more points in his first four games back from a four-month break from December 2011 to this past March.

He'll dominate the NHL and should open the season as the favorite to win the league scoring race. That much is known.

What isn't known, though, is just how well his head and neck will hold up. The long off-season has hopefully helped Crosby's lid recover to 100%. If Sid's concussion issues are truly behind him, he should be unstoppable.

He's 25 years old - just now hitting his prime - and has looked better than ever when he's actually played over the last two seasons, posting 103 points in his last 63 games. That's a 1.635 points-per-game average. Crosby currently sits fourth on the NHL's all-time points-per-game list. That 1.635 number would be good for third behind only the two greatest players in the game's history: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

Expect Crosby to continue posting numbers above the 1.5 per-game mark, assuming he remains healthy.

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Evgeni Malkin Will Dominate Sooner

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Charles LeClaire - US PRESSWIRE

What Evgeni Malkin did to the KHL during his lockout stint there was surreal. The 26-year-old posted 23 goals and 65 points in 37 games. Only one other player recorded more than 50 points: Malkin's teammate Sergei Mozyakin. Aside from those two, only Alexander Radulov had more than 40.

It's safe to say Malkin is in game shape. While he'll have to readjust to the NHL's smaller ice surface, that won't take long. His knee issues from 2011 are behind him and I expect Malkin to build on the 109-point (1.45 per game) season he turned in last year.

While I expect Crosby to have the better overall season, Malkin will already be ahead of the competition once the puck drops thanks to his time in the KHL.

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Simon Despres Will Impress You

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Charles LeClaire - US PRESSWIRE

Rookie defenseman Simon Despres could finally get his shot as a full-time NHL player this season. The 30th overall pick of the 2009 draft spent most of last season with the team's AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. While he probably won't ever post the sort of points numbers he did in juniors (88 points in his last 110 games with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL), Despres should turn out to be a very solid two-way defenseman and a top four guy for the Penguins for years to come.

While he hasn't necessarily stood out in the AHL this season, I believe the 21-year-old will make the big club out of training camp and work with Deryk Engelland or Ben Lovejoy to form the team's third defensive pairing. Even if Despres doesn't make the club out of camp, he'll get his shot at some point during the season. That will probably come sooner rather than later, considering the toll this condensed schedule will likely take on players' bodies. There will be injuries.

Watch for Despres to provide the Penguins with a solid if not flashy game that will be respected and appreciated by true hockey fans.

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Tyler Kennedy's Penguins Career Will End

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Charles LeClaire - US PRESSWIRE

This is Tyler Kennedy's last year in Pittsburgh. I hope, at least.

The 26-year-old scrub winger is in the last year of a contract that paid him way too much money $2 million/year. He scored 11 goals in 60 games last year. That's a 15-goal pace, despite finishing with the third-most shots-per-game on the team. He had a team low 5.6% shooting percentage. To put that in perspective, Craig Adams' shooting percentage was 6.6%.

Last time Kennedy was in a contract year (2010-11), he scored 21 goals and was given a two-year/$4 million contract.

Even if Kennedy has another "solid" season like that, the Penguins can't afford to bring him back unless he's willing to take a significant pay cut. And even then, the Penguins have enough salary cap space to find a better fringe top six player.

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The Penguins Will Make A Run At The Top Seed In The Conference

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Charles LeClaire - US PRESSWIRE

The healthy Pittsburgh Penguins are arguably the best team in the National Hockey League, but before we get to Stanley Cup predictions, there's a regular season to play.

The team's schedule will likely be loaded with divisional opponents (as will every other team's schedule), so playing in what has to be considered the best division in the league won't help the team's chances at claiming the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

That being said, there is only one team in the entire conference that scares me: the New York Rangers.

The Rangers come equipped with three fantastic players up front in Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and the newly acquired Rick Nash, a better-than-good defense corps featuring probably the best young top four in the game, and are rounded out by the best goaltender in the game today in Henrik Lundqvist.

I believe the Rangers are the only team standing between the Penguins and the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and I expect one of the two to finish as the conference's top team.

Also worth noting is the fact that the Penguins have about $9 million in cap space. That's more than enough to add an impact player or two at the trade deadline.

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