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NHL Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins 2013 Projections: Forwards

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Projections for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013

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Charles Leclaire - US PRESSWIRE

The Pittsburgh Penguins officially open the 2013 NHL season on Saturday at 3 PM in Philadelphia against the Flyers. That game will be nationally televised on NBC. The Penguins will then travel to Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Rangers Sunday evening at 7 PM. The national audience can catch that game on NHL Network.

The entire schedule will consist of 48 games entirely against conference opponents – that means no 10 PM start times so the Western Conference can see Sidney Crosby this year. The Penguins get four games against the Flyers and New Jersey Devils and five against each squad from New York. They’ll face each of the other 10 teams from the Eastern Conference three times.

Four of the Penguins’ first five games are on the road. The team’s Home Opener comes Wednesday, January 23rd against the Toronto Maple Leafs. From there, the Penguins travel to Winnipeg and then Ottawa to conclude a three-game series against Canada’s Eastern Conference teams. They’ll host the New York Islanders on Tuesday, January 29th and then return to Madison Square Garden to close out the month of January.

February sees the team playing 14 games in 27 days.

The Penguins finally make up for the overload of road games early in the season by playing 10 of 12 games from March 10th to April 2nd on home ice.

We’ll see Jordan Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes twice in April, including at home for the season finale.

While I already covered what you can expect from the Penguins as a team this season, what should fans expect production-wise from the team’s players individually?

Plenty of things go into creating projections for a shortened season like this. You can’t just take what you figured on a player doing over an 82-game season and prorate the numbers to a 48-game season. There are too many other factors, like where and how a player played during the lockout and whether the player age or injury status means he was helped by the extra-long off-season.

All things considered, click through the slideshow to see my projections for the team’s impact forwards. Later on, I’ll have projections for defensemen and goaltenders.

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Brandon Sutter

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Rick-Osentoski-USA-TODAY-Sports

What better place to start the list than with the most prominent new face in town, former Carolina Hurricanes center Brandon Sutter?

The Penguins acquired Sutter along with defenseman Brian Doumolin and the eight overall pick in the 2012 draft – which the team turned into prospect Derrick Pouliot – for Jordan Staal back in June.

Like Staal, Sutter plays a physical, gritty two-way game and Penguins fans will love him. While he may not ever post the offensive numbers Staal did in Pittsburgh, Sutter is a fantastic guy to have as the team’s third line center and is remarkably mature for not yet having seen his 24th birthday. He was an alternate captain for the Hurricanes last season.

Defensively, Sutter is capable of handling the opposition’s top lines and he and Matt Cooke should combine to make a good two-thirds of the team’s shut down line this season.

Projections: 11 goals, 10 assists. A spot on the team’s penalty kill and second power play units.

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Matt Cooke

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Charles Leclaire - US PRESSWIRE

Matt Cooke’s is an interesting situation. I firmly believe he’s a changed man. I wrote about it a lot prior to last season and I absolutely wasn’t wrong. He’s a different man than the one who effectively ended Marc Savard’s career with an elbow to the head two years ago. He’s a different man than the one who may have been able to help the Penguins through their 2011 playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning but was busy serving a suspension for elbowing Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

The 44 PIMs Cooke received in 82 games last season speak for themselves, especially after averaging 100 PIMs per 82 games in his career.

He also set a career high with 19 goals and had the second-best season of his career points-wise with 38.

Unfortunately, as a side effect to cleansing his game of dirt, Cooke doesn’t hit like he used to. He’s not the physical presence he used to be and that hurts the Penguins. I might rather have a 30-point player who is referred to as “dirty” but scares opponents than a 38-point player who doesn’t.

If Cooke can regain his physical edge but keep the hits clean and legal, he’ll be a great player to have on the team. If not, the 34-year-old may be in his last season in a Penguins uniform, despite still being a serviceable penalty killer.

This season, Cooke could see time on Evgeni Malkin’s wing along with James Neal. The spot is up for grabs and I don’t expect either of Eric Tangradi or Tyler Kennedy to take control of the role.

Projections: 12 goals, 9 assists. One of the team’s best penalty killers.

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Tyler Kennedy

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Charles Leclaire - US PRESSWIRE

There’s no two ways around it: Tyler Kennedy isn’t my favorite player on the Penguins. In fact, I can say he’s my least favorite. He’s the only player I truly want off the team and really wouldn’t care what the Penguins received in return. He’s by no means a top-six forward and is too small and average defensively to be a good bottom-six guy or penalty kill specialist.

That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kennedy posted a really solid 2013 campaign. Why? For one, he’ll likely get at least a brief look on Malkin’s wing. But more importantly, take a look at his statistics since he’s come into the NHL:

2007-08: 55 games, 10g/9a/19p

2008-09: 67 games, 15g/20a/35p

2009-10: 64 games, 13g/12a/25p

2010-11: 80 games, 21g/24a/45p

2011-12: 60 games, 11g/22a/33p

See any outliers there? I do: Kennedy’s 2008-09 and 2010-11 seasons were considerably better than his others, not counting the 22 assists he somehow recorded last year. (Note: He racked up 9 assists in the 22 games Crosby played in. I’m not sure exactly how many he recorded while playing on Crosby’s wing, but that’s what I’m getting at.)

What do 2008-09 and 2010-11 have in common? They were contract years for Kennedy – just like 2013.

Last time Kennedy’s contract was set to expire, he turned in the only 20-goal/45-point season he’s ever sniffed and was rewarded with a deal that pays him $2 million per year. Yikes.

Can he do it again? And if he does manage it, will Penguins brass fall for it again? Will he be dealt at the trade deadline for some defensive help? I’m not sure, but here’s to hoping his last season in Pittsburgh is a good one.

Projections: 10 goals, 11 assists. Possibly dealt at the trade deadline as part of a package for a legitimate top-six wing or some defensive help.

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Dustin Jeffrey

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Greg M. Cooper - US PRESSWIRE

Dustin Jeffrey is my personal pick for the open spot alongside Malkin and Neal. He has the speed, size and talent to be a legitimate top-six asset, but hasn’t yet been given a look with either of the team’s star centers. He seems to be on head coach Dan Bylsma’s bad side for reasons unknown.

Jeffrey is a skill guy. He’s not gritty enough to be a permanent bottom-six guy but needs an opportunity to show he can make it in the team’s top-six.

While he’s probably third or fourth on the team’s depth chart for that open spot beside Malkin (Tangradi, Kennedy, Cooke and even Beau Bennett are in the mix), I’m hoping Bylsma gives him his chance soon.

I won’t provide projections for Jeffrey since there’s not telling whether he’ll play on the team’s second line, fourth line, or in the NHL at all. But if he does get that chance with Malkin, expect good things.

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Eric Tangradi

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Jerome Miron - US PRESSWIRE

This is Tangradi’s last shot. It has to be. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem ready for it. The soon-to-be 23-year-old will get the first look of anybody on Malkin’s left wing. At 6’4” and 232 lbs., Tangradi has the body to cause havoc from Malkin and Neal in front of the net and to win battles in the corners.

Unfortunately, he’s not very good at doing those things.

In 34 AHL games this season, Tangradi has amassed just ten goals and 18 points with a -8 rating. The Philadelphia native isn’t afraid to throw his body around and will work in the dirty areas, but his legs just aren’t where they need to be to play alongside Malkin and he doesn’t have exceptional stick skills.

Acquired along with Chris Kunitz from Anaheim for Ryan Whitney a few years ago, this might be Tangradi’s last shot at turning into anything more than a big body. I don’t think he’ll take advantage of it, but let’s hope he does. A Tangradi-Malkin-Neal line would be absolutely huge. Literally.

Projections: 7 goals, 7 assists. Doesn’t stick as Malkin’s winger but stays on the team’s third line.

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Pascal Dupuis

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Charles Leclaire - US PRESSWIRE

Pascal Dupuis enjoyed a somewhat weird breakout season last year. He turned 32 on April 7 of 2012, but set career highs with 25 goals, 34 assists, 59 points, a +18 rating and 214 shots on goal. Dupuis has always had the wheels and the slap shot to be a good fit on Sidney Crosby’s wing, but it wasn’t until he played without Crosby that the undrafted Quebec native really broke out.

He’ll be back on Crosby’s wing this season, but looking to build on his big 2012. The Dupuis/Crosby/Kunitz line has always been serviceable for the team, but with both Crosby and Dupuis playing at a higher level than we’ve ever seen, the whole line could be in for a huge year.

Projections: 14 goals, 16 assists

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Chris Kunitz

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Charles Leclaire - US PRESSWIRE

Chris Kunitz has meshed with Sidney Crosby since the day he arrived in Pittsburgh from Anaheim. He recorded seven goals and 18 points in 20 regular season games after being acquired in 2009 and helped the team win the Stanley Cup that year. He’s gritty and skilled enough to fit perfectly on Crosby’s wing.

Last year, Kunitz showed he can play with Malkin, too. The now 33-year-old posted the best goal, assist and point totals of his NHL career last season while playing mainly on Malkin’s left side.

This season – to start, at least – Kunitz will be back with Crosby and Pascal Dupuis. He’ll also probably be the net presence on the team’s top power play unit.

Expect big things from Kunitz this year, who signed a two-year contract extension during last season.

Projection: 16 goals, 18 assists

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James Neal

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Charles Leclaire - US PRESSWIRE

What a story James Neal was last season, eh? After scoring just one goal in 20 games in 2011 after being acquired from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Alex Goligoski, Neal posted 40 goals and 41 assists on Evgeni Malkin’s wing in 2011-12.

His 40 goals were good for fourth in the NHL and his 81 points ranked him seventh in the league.

Neal’s quick release makes him a good fit with Malkin’s playmaking skills. While his defensive game is nothing to write home about and you’d like to see him throw his big frame around a bit more, Neal will post tons of points as long as he plays with a good playmaking center. The Penguins have two great ones.

Projection: 23 goals, 22 assists

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Evgeni Malkin

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Charles Leclaire - US PRESSWIRE

I’m pretty much going to say exactly what I said when I wrote about Malkin’s potential for 2013 here.

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.

The new-look power play the Penguins have been practicing has Malkin working down low with Kunitz, Crosby on the half-wall and Kris Letang and James Neal working the points. I’m not sure that formation will stick, but it shouldn’t matter. Having the two best players in the world on the same power play means there’s too much talent there for this team not score and for Malkin not to rack up the power play points.

He’s already in game shape. He dominated a league full of NHLers while the NHL was locked out. Big things are coming from Malkin this season.

Projections: 30 goals, 37 assists. A top three scoring finish and multiple award considerations.

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Sidney Crosby

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Charles Leclaire - US PRESSWIRE

This is it for Sidney Crosby. This is his chance to prove once and for all that his neck/head injuries are a thing of the past. He finished last season strong, playing in each of the team’s final 20 games, including all six in the postseason.

The 103 points Crosby has recorded in the 63 games he’s played over the last two seasons are good for a 1.63 points per game average. That would rank him third on the NHL’s All-Time points per game leaderboard.

That sounds extremely impressive until you realize he’s currently fourth.

Still just 25 years old, Crosby has yet to hit his physical prime.

He scored 102 points as an 18-year-old – a career low for a healthy season and something Claude Giroux dreams about one day doing.

Crosby followed that up with an 84-assist, 120-point campaign and has posted no less than 103 points in every season in which he’s played at least 77 games since then.

Bobby Clarke is jealous.

And that’s all I’ll say.

The season starts Saturday and the league’s second-best offense in 2011-12 has added the best player in the world to its roster.

And he’s the best player he’s ever been.

Projections: 27 goals, 43 assists. The Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay Awards among others.

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