Pittsburgh’s youth movement will be vital

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Ray Shero has identified the core of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and locked it up for a long time.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi are signed through the 2016-17 season. Combined, they’ll earn $41 million annually and, what’s more, all seven of them have some form of no-movement clause.

So, barring something major, those are your Pittsburgh Penguins for the next four years.

That’s the easy part.

Where Shero’s job gets difficult is in finding people to play with that core. The reigning NHL GM of the Year has always been an active in the trade and free agent market, but now it seems his best course of action might be an old fashioned one:

Draft and groom.

There’s a blueprint for success out there, and it involves getting production from guys on entry-level and second contracts. Last season, Chicago surrounded its pricey core (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) with key contributors on cheap deals: playoff hero Andrew Shaw, Calder nominee Brandon Saad, defenseman Nick Leddy and power forward Bryan Bickell.

None of those players made more than $900,000 last season; Bickell (who to be fair, was on his third contract with the club) made a mere $541,667 while finishing second in the team in playoff goals, with nine.

In Pittsburgh, a similar development may unfold.

Beau Bennett, who scored 14 points in 26 games last year as a rookie, has two more years left on his deal at $900,000. Big things are expected from the 2010 first-rounder this season, especially with the departures of forwards Jarome Iginla, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke and Brenden Morrow.

“He played 26 games for us, and showed what he could do power-play-wise, what he could do making plays with the puck,” Pens head coach Dan Bylsma said of Bennett. “I think there is an opportunity for Beau, and I think he’s capable of adding in that regard on our top six with our skilled players.

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people by the end of the year with how he can help our team.”

On defense, the Pens will have a number of young options to choose from. Simon Despres, the club’s first-rounder from 2009, seems ready for full-time action, and has one year left on his ELC at $840k.

There are also 2012 first-rounders Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta, still a year or two away from contributing but ready to potentially replace the likes of Brooks Orpik (who’s deal is up after this season) and Paul Martin (done after the 2014-15 campaign).

Shero acknowledged the importance of having young guys at the ready.

“When it is time to turn some of your club over,” he told NHL.com, “it is really helpful to have guys like that ready to step in.”