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Core Values: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin set Penguins' foundation

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

The Penguins still boast two of the game's best at the top of their lineup. (USATSI)
The Penguins still boast two of the game's best at the top of their lineup. (USATSI)

More NHL Offseason: NHL rumors | Rumor mill | Trade Tracker | 2014-15 preseason odds

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The Pittsburgh Penguins underwent some serious turnover organizationally after last season ended with another earlier-than-expected playoff exit. The message from ownership has been clear: Anything less than regularly contending for the Stanley Cup is not enough.

Out went general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma and in came Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston. Also gone are defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, who will both be suiting up with divisional rival Washington Capitals on expensive long-term deals. Additionally the team traded away James Neal and allowed Jussi Jokinen to walk in free agency, taking away two of the team's top five scorers from last season.

It's not exactly a start-from-scratch scenario for the Penguins at present -- they added key defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and scorer Patric Hornqvist this summer -- but there has been a noticeable change in course for the club. That change didn't much alter the top of the lineup, however.

The Penguins still have the luxury of claiming the league's best player in Sidney Crosby, who is coming off an MVP season. Then there's that Evgeni Malkin fella, a former MVP himself, slotted right behind Crosby. Having a duo like that right at the top of the lineup gives the Penguins cornerstone forwards to continue building around.

It's the fact that the club didn't build enough depth around those two over the last few seasons, which has led to the lack of postseason success since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. The team hasn't been able to bring in an impact forward in the draft, which has hurt, but the team should have been better at the bottom of the lineup than it has been of late.

The turnover this offseason, particularly on the blue line, may be a bit tougher to weather, but there is some promising youth that could fill bigger roles.

The upcoming season that will tell a lot more about where the Penguins are headed as an organization with several big contracts ending after this season, most notably those belonging to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Paul Martin.

There could be more of a shakeup coming, but much of the core likely remains with the team. Here's who is a part of it now.

Core Values: Pittsburgh Penguins

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C Sidney Crosby (26, 12 years), C Evgeni Malkin (28, 9 years), D Kris Letang (27, 9 years), LW Chris Kunitz (34, 3 years), G Marc-Andre Fleury (29, 1 year), D Paul Martin (33, 1 year), D Olli Maatta (19, 2 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $40,194, 167 (58% of salary cap consumed by seven players)

Average Age: 28

Total point production in 2013-14: 117 goals, 193 assists, 310 points (46.5% of team's total point production)

Pittsburgh Penguins Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:

*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. Red represents below 50 percent. The darker the shade, the further away from 50 percent. Side note: Kris Letang and Paul Martin did not appear in 41 games last season which was the threshold for inclusion in the usage chart.

About the Core

Sidney Crosby: After putting up 104 points in 80 games to lead the NHL and take the Hart Trophy as league MVP, Crosby merely asserted his position as the game's best player. He played nearly 22 minutes a game last season and accounted for 15 percent of his team's point production all by himself. The biggest thing about last season was that Crosby managed to stay healthy after three straight seasons of battling injuries. He did get hurt in the playoffs this year, which may have limited him, but getting through 80 of the 82 games last season is a big step forward. It's almost hard to believe that Crosby is still just 26 years old with all he has accomplished in nine NHL seasons. He has 769 points in 550 NHL games and is responsible for revitalizing hockey in Pittsburgh. That Stanley Cup in 2009 sure didn't hurt. The two-time Hart Trophy winner still has a lot of great hockey in the years ahead. How he was acquired: 2005 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Evgeni Malkin: Perhaps it's the fact that Malkin plays on the same team as Crosby that he is not fully appreciated, but he is still widely considered as one of the game's elite talents. Like Crosby, Malkin has dealt with some injuries over the years. In fact, Malkin hasn't managed to put a full season together over the last five. He missed 22 games in 2013-14, but still put up 72 points. The big Russian center is only two years removed from winning the Hart and Art Ross Trophies. He has 632 points in 518 career games, all with Pittsburgh, and carries one of the highest cap hits in the NHL at $9.5 million per season. If Malkin can stay healthy, there's no reason to believe he won't rack up more individual awards by the time his time in the NHL is done. How he adjusts to not having James Neal on his wing may be interesting as Malkin has started to look more and more like a pass-first center, but he did fine before Neal got to Pittsburgh and likely will continue wreaking havoc on opposing defenses. How he was acquired: 2004 NHL Entry Draft, first round, second overall

Kris Letang's health concerns don't detract from his immense skill. (USATSI)
Kris Letang's health concerns don't detract from his immense skill. (USATSI)

Kris Letang: The Penguins really have been bitten by the injury bug, but it took one of its scariest turns when Letang was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke last season. He missed all but 37 regular-season games and managed to make a rather miraculous comeback despite such a scary situation. It was good to see Letang back and in good health as he has become one of the better puck-moving defensemen in the league over his career. In his last full season, which was 2010-11, he had 50 points in 82 games. The following year he put up a staggering 42 in 51 contests and was better than a point-per-game player in 35 games during the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. Letang has 231 points in 422 career games, having spent his entire career with the Penguins. There are definitely some concerns defensively, but Letang's skill goes a long way in helping the Pens win the possession battle, which is also good for defensive purposes. The veteran defenseman's new eight-year, $58 million contract kicks in this year with an annual cap hit of $7.25 million. It's an expensive deal, but Letang is the linchpin of Pittsburgh's blue line and will be for years to come. How he was acquired: 2005 NHL Entry Draft, third round, 62nd overall

Chris Kunitz: The elder statesman of the Pens' core at 34 years old, Kunitz really owes the latter half of his career success to joining this team. Though Kunitz often is discredited due to the fact he plays with Sidney Crosby, his production remains important. The 106 goals Kunitz has scored over four straight years of 20 or more goals in a season is 15th in the NHL over that span. He posted a career-best 35 goals last season as well. Yes, he's benefiting from Crosby without a doubt, but he still has to put the puck in the net and he does. With just three years left on his contract, younger players are likely to start nipping at Kunitz's heels, but the Pens still need to build more of a forward pipeline before that starts becoming a reality. It may be interesting to see where new addition Patric Hornqvist slots in though. The former 30-goal man may be best positioned to one day supplant Kunitz from the core group. How he was acquired: Traded from the Anaheim Ducks with Eric Tangradi for Ryan Whitney on February 26, 2009

Marc-Andre Fleury: Here's an interesting cse. A lot of Pittsburgh's woes over the last few years have been pinned on so-so goaltending from Fleury. He has just one year remaining on his contract, but the Pens don't really have much in the pipeline to replace him. He does have a Stanley Cup to his name and is a former first-overall pick, but is he going to be part of the long-term future of this team? Fleury is a career .910 save percentage goalie, which is average to below-average among starting goaltenders in the league. He's put together back-to-back seasons above that career mark however with a .916 save percentage in 2012-13 and a .915 mark last year. He also is coming off his best postseason performance since 2008. But doubts persist about Fleury and whether or not he really is holding the Penguins back. That is what makes this season so crucial for the soon-to-be 30-year-old goalie. Will he end up with a new deal to remain a Penguin or is this the end of the line? How he was acquired: 2003 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Paul Martin: Also playing on the last year of his contract, Martin is also coming out of an injury-shortened 2013-14 campaign. A strong two-way defender who was utilized in a lot of the Penguins' shutdown situations when healthy is among the more underrated defensemen in the league. Martin has 89 points in 223 games with Pittsburgh since coming over from the New Jersey Devils organization. Additionally, he has routinely been a strong possession player over the years despite the fact he often draws the toughest defensive assignments while averaging nearly 24 minutes a game. After such turnover this summer, Martin is a steady presence who should help as the Penguins defense gets younger around him with Simon Despres, Olli Maata, and Derrick Pouliot all looking to take on more prominent roles. Should the Penguins decide not to retain Martin, it may take some time to stabilize the defense, which is why I think he's still deserving of a spot in this team's core group. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2010

Olli Maatta: Though he's played just one season for the club, teenage defenseman Olli Maatta is the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins' defensive corps. He appeared in 78 games as a rookie, gradually earning more responsibility and even touching on top-four minutes at various points of the season. Maatta put up 29 points, including nine goals as a rookie and managed to put 119 shots on net. The youngster averaged nearly 19 minutes a game in the regular season and saw a minimal decrease in ice time during the postseason, during which he appeared in 19 games. After making the jump from junior hockey seamlessly, the expectations are higher for Maatta heading into next year, but he seems to have the hockey IQ to live up to those lofty projections. He has good size at 6-2, 208, and he still has two years left on his team-friendly entry-level contract. With Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik gone, look for Maatta to take on a full-time role in Pittsburgh's top four and don't be surprised if he excels while doing so. How he was acquired: 2012 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 22nd overall

Who's next in line

Big things will be expected from most recent first-rounder Kasperi Kapanen. (USATSI)
Big things will be expected from most recent first-rounder Kasperi Kapanen. (USATSI)

The Penguins have a series of young blueliners who should be looking for more established roles, most notably Simon Despres. The former first-round pick has played parts of the last three seasons with the Pens, but never seemed to fully gain the trust of Dan Bylsma. With a new regime in town, Despres may be looking to get more minutes and see a variety of situations early next season.

There's still plenty of time to see more from former first-round pick Beau Bennett, who has appeared in 47 games over the last two seasons. The 22-year-old has battled some injuries over the course of his career, but the offensive potential he possesses still could allow him to become an impact player with the Penguins.

Additionally the team now has Patric Hornqvist under contract for the next four years after dealing James Neal away to the Nashville Predators. Should Hornqvist continue as the guaranteed 20-plus goal man he has been for the better part of five years, there won't be as much of a drop off offensively. Hornqvist also has a 30-goal season under his belt and is coming off a career-best 53 points. A new setting for the 27-year-old with better centers could bring the goals in a big way.

What will be interesting to watch is what happens with offseason free agent acquisition Christian Ehrhoff. The team signed him to a one-year deal after he was bought out by the Buffalo Sabres, but if he has a big year, he might be worth a solid long-term contract. That may end up making Martin more expendable at that point.

The team also has a pair of exciting prospects to look forward to in training camp this year. Defenseman Derrick Pouliot, the former eighth overall pick, will be reunited with his old junior coach in Pittsburgh as Mike Johnston takes over the reins with the Penguins after leading Pouliot and the Portland Winterhawks. That familiarity with Pouliot may be a benefit to the 20-year-old defenseman who put up 70 points in the WHL last season. He was widely viewed as an untouchable player in any trade talks with the Penguins last season.

The team also has high hopes for Kasperi Kapanen, whom the Penguins selected 22nd overall at the most recent draft. There's even talk of him making the team as early as next season. The son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen has speed and skill so he should be an interesting prospect after years of the Penguins not drafting well at forward.

Overview

No one is going to feel sorry for the Penguins for early ousters from the playoffs because of the tools they have at their disposal already. Two of the elite forwards in the game up front, a high-end puck mover and talented shutdown defender on the blue line and a number of higher-end youngsters coming up through the ranks is a good position to be in.

The team is going to have some decisions to make this season which could ultimately shift the core group somewhat. The biggest decision coming is whether or not to retain Marc-Andre Fleury. With no NHL-ready goalies in the system at this point, they may have little choice.

The Pens seem to have the opposite problem on defense. They have a lot of young guns coming up, but is that going to allow them to shed the more expensive contracts of Paul Martin and/or Christian Ehrhoff? That's less clear. Pittsburgh won't want to go too young if they're still gunning for Stanley Cups every year.

Having Crosby and Malkin as the centerpieces of the whole operation is a great place to build out from even though the Pens are spending a lot of money at the top of their lineup. If the team can continue to find suitable depth players that won't be a liability when the stars aren't on the ice, they should have an annual contender.

After such a tumultuous offseason, the Penguins have to find ways to meet the lofty expectations of ownership. With such turnover from a season ago, perhaps the Penguins have restructured enough to dodge another postseason malaise, but if not, more heads could roll after the season.

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