Pittsburgh Penguins Who Must Prove Themselves Early in 2014-15 Season

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIJuly 31, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins Who Must Prove Themselves Early in 2014-15 Season

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    Having put behind them the disappointment of last season's abrupt end at the hands of the New York Rangers, a front-office shakeup and a coaching change, the Pittsburgh Penguins can now look ahead to the promise of a new season.

    While some might think that the Pens are done with their roster makeover, new general manager Jim Rutherford has made it clear that building a team for the playoffs is an ongoing process and some players who start the season in Pittsburgh may finish it somewhere else.

    With that in mind, let's look at five players who will need to have a strong start to the 2014-15 season in order to dispel any doubts about their future with the Penguins.

Simon Despres

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    When he was drafted with the 30th pick in the first round of the 2009 NHL entry draft, Simon Despres was viewed by analysts as a "steal" who had the size, speed and skill to be a top-four defenseman.

    Five years later, however, the Penguins are still waiting for Despres to be the player everyone thought that he would be, and unless he wins a roster spot in training camp and has a strong start to the season, his time in Pittsburgh may be coming to a close.

    Having signed a two-year, $1.8 million contract this summer, Despres would have to pass through waivers in order to be sent down to the AHL yet again, so if he can't crack the lineup, the Pens will have no choice but to trade him.

    With seven NHL-level defensemen already on the roster and with Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington looking to make the jump to the NHL, Despres faces a daunting task but may get an opportunity with Olli Maatta recovering from shoulder surgery. 

    Whether he earns a roster spot and has a strong start to the season or not, one thing is certain: This will be the last offseason in which Pens management and fans will wonder what to do with Simon Despres.

Marc-Andre Fleury

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    Although he was able to put a string of abysmal postseason performances behind him and return to his old form this past season, Marc-Andre Fleury's long-term future with the Penguins remains in doubt.

    Entering the final year of a seven-year, $35 million contract, Fleury was reported to be seeking a contract extension this offseason, but new general manager Jim Rutherford seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

    While Rutherford reportedly made it clear to other teams that Fleury is not on the trade block, he did sign Thomas Greiss, who is seen by many as ready to be a starting goaltender, to compete for the backup job and push Fleury for playing time. 

    In addition, the Pens also have several highly touted goaltending prospects in the organization who, although a few years from being NHL-ready, could make Fleury expendable down the road.

    In order to get a contract extension to remain in Pittsburgh, Fleury must have a strong start to the 2014-15 season to show that he can once again lead the Pens to the Stanley Cup.

Pascal Dupuis

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    While any 35-year-old player would be under scrutiny to see if his skills have diminished or if he's lost a step, a 35-year-old player coming off of major knee injury, as Pascal Dupuis is, would be under even more scrutiny.

    Having teamed up with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz to form the NHL's top scoring line, Dupuis has used his top-end speed and hard shot to average just under 20 goals a season since joining the Pens, but questions remain as to how age and a surgically repaired knee will impact his production.

    With James Neal having been traded away, the Pens' remaining forwards will have to pick up the slack, and despite his age and injury, Dupuis will be counted on to produce offensively, especially early in the season when the Pens may still be shuffling their lines to find the right combinations.

    By taking less money to stay with the team last summer, Dupuis demonstrated that he is committed to the Pens, but if he struggles early in the season, the question is, how committed will the Pens be to him?

Rob Scuderi

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    Last summer, the big news surrounding the Penguins was the return of Rob Scuderi to solidify the Pens blue line and get Kris Letang back on track.

    This summer, that same move that was met with excitement by Pens fans is now openly questioned by many of those same fans, as injuries and prolonged struggles have raised questions over whether the 35-year-old Scuderi is worth that four-year, $13.5 million contract.

    In his defense, Scuderi played well alongside Robert Bortuzzo in the postseason, and given what former Pens Brooks Orpik ($5.5 million cap hit, per Spotrac) and Deryk Engelland ($2.92 million cap hit) signed for elsewhere, his contract looks like a bargain.

    Given the uncertainty on the Pens blue line with Paul Martin's future with the team up in the air and with rookie sensation Olli Maatta and top prospect Derrick Pouliot both coming off shoulder surgeries, Scuderi will have the opportunity to convince the Pens brain trust that he is worth the price.

    However, with highly touted prospects Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin waiting in the wings, Scuderi must have a strong start to the 2014-15 season or he may find himself on the trading block.

Kris Letang

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    After signing an eight-year, $58 million contract extension last summer, Kris Letang was expected to finally join the top tier of NHL defensemen, but instead, he seemed to take a step backward.

    Having gone from a combined 54 regular and postseason points to just 28 last season, Letang struggled to stay on the ice due to an array of injuries, which included a midseason stroke, and struggled on the ice as well.

    When you combine his falling production and skyrocketing cap hit, which will go from $3.5 million to $7.25 million, and the fact the he will make more than the last five Norris Trophy winners, it's not hard to see why many think it's time for Letang to be traded

    Having lost three of their seven NHL-level defensemen from last season in free agency, the Pens are already in the midst of a blue-line overhaul and have several NHL-ready prospects expected to compete for roster spots in training camp. 

    If Kris Letang is to convince new head coach Mike Johnston and new general manager Jim Rutherford that he's worth the money that the previous regime committed to him, he'll need to play well early, or he could quickly find himself on the trade block.