*Hockey is back. Players report to camp Friday morning and will go through physicals/conditioning tests before Saturday’s first on-ice session.
Sidney Crosby’s status remains unclear from a participation level in camp. The Penguins have remained mum on his status this week and it’s not clear yet whether Crosby or the team will address his status tomorrow morning. If Crosby is cleared to participate in camp, it’s expected to be on a limited basis and no contact.
Onto some pressing issues and pre-camp buzz on the team:
*Two things I took from Dan Bylsma’s comments at the team’s annual golf tournament on Wednesday; He feels the team is more equipped and prepared to withstand an extended period without Crosby and he is very intrigued by the strong competion the Penguins will have at forward and on the blueline.
Having months to prepare for the possibility that Crosby wouldn’t be ready for camp, Bylsma and his staff appear ready to go from a Plan-B standpoint.
*Bylsma indicated to reporters at the team’s rookie tournament that his ultimate plan is to play Chris Kunitz and James Neal together with Sidney Crosby, but with Crosby expected to be a no go, indications on the eve of camp are that the Penguins intend to split up their top two wingers. The plan to develop James Neal as a right winger is said to remain in place.
*The Penguins are banking on Evgeni Malkin getting back to being a 100 point player and he will not only go into camp coming off ACL surgery but is expected to have two new wingers on his wings.
Steve Sullivan at left wing and James Neal on right wing, are expected to open up camp on the top line with Malkin. The trickle down effect will have Kunitz – Staal and Kennedy on the second line and Cooke and Dupuis with Letestu (likely) on the third line.
*James Neal comes into the season with pressure to produce like a top-line winger and it’s a big season from a contract standpoint for Neal. When acquiring Neal, the Penguins took into consideration that there was a strong chance that Neal would be in line for a $4 million+ contract in 2012. He is a restricted free agent at seasons end.
*I’m told that the Penguins are not down on Mark Letestu but he’s not going to be handed a job, despite scoring 14 goals in 64 games last season and having just a cap hit of $625,000 on a one-way contract.
*Scouts feel Alexandre Picard will push Matt Niskanen for a spot in the top-7. I’m told to watch for his ability to handle a No. 2 power play unit, something Niskanen couldn’t provide an impact at. Picard had 6 power play goals for Ottawa in 2008-2009 and has a hard shot from the point. He is also a left handed shot.
*Hearing the Penguins are confident that Steve Sullivan can put up 17-20 goals/ 48-55 points if he stays healthy. The team is not concerned about his age.
*Will be touching base on this on my Defensemen preview for Friday but concensus among scouts I’ve spoken with this summer is that prospect Robert Bortuzzo could be a tremendous asset to the Penguins blueline and provide a physical presence, most notably a clearing the front of the net presence that the Penguins desperately lacked in last years playoff run. Problem is Bortuzzo’s status for camp is unclear due to injury and it sounds unlikely Pens will look to open up a spot for him or any prospect off the bat this season. Bortuzzo was a plus-28 rating and 26 points (4G-22A) in 79 games in 2010-11 for Wilkes Barre. People I talk with say he’s ready for the next step to the NHL.