By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)
A brand new season of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey will begin tonight against the Dallas Stars at 8:30 PM. Although the core players of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang are still with Pittsburgh, the 2015-16 Penguins will look much different than they did the last time they played a meaningful game. Over the summer, the Penguins lost some good players such as Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff and Blake Comeau. The losses of Ehrhoff and Martin really hurt the defense, but the forward depth has improved greatly from a year ago. GM Jim Rutherford was able to acquire star winger Phil Kessel from Toronto and signed forwards Sergei Plotnikov, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr. Rutherford also swapped Brandon Sutter for Nick Bonino in a trade with Vancouver. Defensemen Tim Erixon and Adam Clendening were also acquired in trades over the offseason. Erixon and Clendening made the team out of training camp, but they will likely be healthy scratches to begin the season.
There are three forwards to look out for tonight in Plotnikov, Kessel and rookie Daniel Sprong. Plotnikov will make his NHL debut tonight after playing in the KHL a year ago. He has been practicing with Malkin’s line as of late, which could help him transition better from the KHL to the NHL. Kessel was obviously the big piece the Penguins got in the offseason and he showed some early chemistry with Crosby early on in the preseason. It will be interesting to see how their games work out together. If they can figure it out, opponents better watch out as Crosby is a an elite playmaker while Kessel is a big-time goal scorer. Sprong, the Penguins’ top pick in this past NHL Draft surprised a lot of people this preseason by making the team. He fell down many draft rankings because of his attitude, but he seems to be just fine with the Penguins. He’s looked confident and unfazed despite being only 18. He will most likely get a look on the bottom-six tonight and may get some more ice time with Pascal Dupuis being out for 4-5 weeks. Pittsburgh’s management team will need to make a decision on Sprong after 9 games though, as his entry-level contract could kick in after 9 games.
Defenseman Olli Maatta will also be making a return to action tonight after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. At first, it was expected that Letang would be paired with Maatta, but that may not be the case as a result of Pittsburgh’s depth on defense. Mike Johnston could elect to split them up to prevent matchup issues.
Dallas, on the other hand, is also an explosive team with stars such as Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and newly-acquired Patrick Sharp. Benn, who won the Art Ross Trophy last season, is looking to score even more points this season with a guy like Sharp. Former Penguins defenseman Alex Goligoski is now an alternate captain with Dallas and will look to beat his former team tonight. Speaking of defense, the Stars acquired defenseman Johnny Oduya in the offseason to improve their depth on the blue line. Antti Niemi is expected to be in goal for the Stars tonight as they hold their home opener.