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Pens swept up by personnel changes

Many of the Pittsburgh veterans are gone, replaced by younger players.

PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby understood the Pittsburgh Penguins wouldn’t begin this season with the same team that finished two victories away from winning the Stanley Cup only 17 weeks ago.

Free agency made that an inevitability. So did the salary cap, and the need by some players to go elsewhere to seek out the roles they felt best suited them. Change is inevitable in sports, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were not spared the inevitability of change.

But this many changes, brought on not only by personnel movement but by injury?

When the Penguins begin the new season Saturday in Stockholm against the Ottawa Senators, four months to the day since they lost Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals to Detroit, they will be enveloped by change.

Changes for the better? There may be some of those as younger defensemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski begin playing bigger, more prominent roles. Changes for the worse? The Penguins may be worrying there are far more of those than anticipated.

“It’s going to be motivating for sure, but it’s done,” Crosby said of trying to avenge last season’s finals defeat. “There’s not a lot of thought about it any more. It’s a new season and a clean slate.”

So clean is the Penguins’ slate that Crosby is expected to begin the new season with Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko as linemates. Neither of the longtime NHL forwards was with the team last season.

Marian Hossa, the All-Star forward who finally gave Crosby a linemate talented enough to take full advantage of his playmaking skill? He turned down nearly $50 million over seven seasons from the Penguins to play with Detroit for slightly more than $7 million in one season.

Just like that, Hossa turned his back on the team and the star with which he thrived, effectively telling the Penguins he had a better chance to win the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings.

“It’s over and done with,” Crosby said. “We’re going to move on.”

Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney won’t move on, at least not immediately. The Penguins’ top two defensemen are injured and out — Gonchar with a dislocated shoulder until March, Whitney following foot surgery until at least January. Gonchar is to have surgery Thursday.

Coupled with the departures of enforcer Georges Laraque, agitator Jarkko Ruutu, tough-guy forward Gary Roberts and reliable scorer Ryan Malone, those are numerous changes for the Penguins to absorb in such short time.

What hasn’t changed: Crosby, now 21, is arguably the NHL’s best player and Evgeni Malkin, now 22, is close behind. Crosby probably would have won a second consecutive scoring title last season if he hadn’t missed nearly 40 percent of it with a high ankle sprain. In his absence, Malkin nearly did win that title with 47 goals and 106 points, finishing second to Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.

“The important thing for us is we do have a lot of guys who went through that (playoff) stretch and who have played together for a while, so I think the new guys coming in are going to fit in nicely,” Crosby said.

Jordan Staal, whose offensive production went down after returning to his natural position of center — he went from 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07 to 12 in 2007-08 — is expected to go back to the wing on Malkin’s line. Petr Sykora may be the other wing on that No. 2 line, one led by last season’s NHL No. 2 scorer.

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