Last year the Pittsburgh Penguins did the impossible. In the first time in the salary cap era, the Penguins won back to back Stanley Cup Championships. Do they have what it takes for a three-peat?
The Penguins have come a long way since making the playoffs in the 2006-07 season. In that time the team has gone through a variety of roster changes, head coaches and General Managers. Regardless of these changes, in the 10 years since that 2006-07 season, the Penguins have won three Stanley Cup Championships and have a very good chance at repeating for a third time in 2018.
As its been since he entered the league, the main source of the Penguins’ offense comes from captain Sidney Crosby. Drafted 1st overall in 2005, Crosby has been one of the best stars of the game and generation since entering the league. In his 782 games Crosby has scored 382 goals and 1027 points, scoring at well over a point per game. Last season was one of Crosby’s best in terms of goal scoring leading the league scoring 44 goals and 89 points in 75 games. This was Crosby’s highest goal total since he scored 51 in the 2009-10 season and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t towards the top of the league in 2018. At just 30 years old, he’s still the best player in the world and will always be in the conversation for the Art Ross, Hart and Rocket Richard.
The other significant cog in Pittsburgh’s offense is Evgeni Malkin. Malkin, 31, was drafted 2nd overall by the Penguins in the 2004 NHL Draft and has consistently been one of the best forwards in the league. Largely shadowed by what Crosby does on a nightly basis, Malkin is no slouch when it comes to offensive production. In his 706 games for the Penguins he has scored 328 goals and 832 points, also averaging over a point a game. Last season he finished second in scoring for Pittsburgh netting 33 goals and 72 points in 62 games along with chipping in 10 goals and 28 points in the 25 game run en route to their second straight Stanley Cup Championship. Like Crosby, Malkin’s scoring is vital to Pittsburgh’s offense and he makes everyone around him better. Although Malkin hasn’t played in a full 82 games since the 2008-09 season and could benefit greatly from remaining healthy, I think he’ll have another successful year in 2018.
If Crosby and Malkin weren’t enough of a scoring threat, lets talk about Malkin’s linemate Phil Kessel. In a trade that shocked the hockey world, Kessel was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer of 2015 and has succeeded immensely in his two years in Pittsburgh. After scoring a respectable 59 points in 2016, Kessel exploded offensively last year finishing third on the Penguins in scoring gathering 23 goals and 70 points in 82 games played. As a player who has played in the last 540 games straight, Kessel should continue to have good point production playing with Malkin.
One player I’m extremely curious to watch in the 2018 season is Jake Guentzel. After being a mid-season call up from the Penguins’ AHL affiliate Guentzel went on an absolute tear scoring 16 goals and 33 points in 40 games. He continued this domination by netting 13 goals and 21 points in 25 playoff games. Granted he spent a lot of time with Crosby, but the kid has undeniable talent and it will be interesting to see if he can recreate last season over the span of a full 82 games.
Despite having the best offense in the league last season, the Penguins finished the regular season around middle of the pack when it came to defense. Pittsburgh finished 2017 with the 14th amount of goals scored against (229) and although their offense usually outscored the oppoisition I think they’ll be better in this upcoming season. One reason for that is that Kris Letang will (hopefully) have a full healthy 82 games under his belt. Letang, 30, hasn’t played a full 82 game season since 2011, but is a difference maker when he is in the lineup. In 2016 Letang appeared in 70 games scoring 16 goals and 67 points, finishing third in scoring by defensemen. On top of this he tallied 15 points in the Penguins’ run to their first Stanley Cup in two years. Last season Letang scored 5 goals and 34 points in 41 games before being sidelined due to injury and being forced to miss all of the Penguins’ second Cup run. If he can remain healthy, Letang has the opportunity to lead the Penguins’ blueliners again with potentially being in the Norris Trophy conversation.
Another crucial defenseman for Pittsburgh is Justin Schultz. Schultz began his NHL career with the Edmonton Oilers, but was traded to the Penguins in the middle of the 2016 season. After recording a respectable 8 points in 18 games, Schultz exploded in production last season. Schultz led the Penguins’ defensemen in scoring, scoring 12 goals and 51 points in 78 games. As a reward for his excellent play, General Manager Jim Rutherford extended Schultz three years with an annual average value of $5.5 million. With Letang, Schultz will be relied upon heavily in the upcoming seasons to keep the Penguins’ blueline afloat and help lead them to another Stanley Cup. At 27 years old and using last season as a point of reference, I could definitely see Schultz racking up another 50 point season.
Aside from these two the rest of the Penguins blueline is made up of Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Matt Hunwick. Not necessarily fantastic options, but with Schultz and Letang carrying most of the heavy lifting and the forwards scoring plenty of goals, then the team should be okay.
As for the goaltending, the reigns have officially been handed over to Matt Murray. After a long and successful career, Marc-Andre Fleury was drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights during the NHL Expansion Draft. This left Matt Murray as the sole starter of the team with a hole to fill for the backup position. This was filled by the signing of Antti Niemi to a one year, $700,000 contract. After having a quality first year with the Dallas Stars in 2016, Niemi’s play dropped off significantly gathering a 12-12-4 record with a 3.30 GAA and .892% save percentage. The signing of Niemi was a low risk, high reward move for the Penguins, because with Niemi strictly playing as the backup he may produce better results. If Niemi fails to live up his expectations, the Penguins could always acquire a cheap, new backup netminder or use a goalie from their AHL affiliate.
As for Murray, this will be the ultimate test for him. Despite being the first goalie to win the Stanley Cup in their first two seasons in the NHL, Murray has never started more than 49 games. He’ll likely have to play somewhere from 60-65 games at least, but with his track record so far he is set up to succeed. Last season Murray was one of the league’s top goalies finishing the season with a 32-10-4 record, a 2.41 GAA and .923% save percentage. At just 23 and with a lot of hockey left to be played in his career, the sky is the limit. I believe that Murray will be able to continue his ways and take over Fleury’s role as the next franchise goalie for the Penguins.
PREDICTION: Despite the competition and moves the Penguins have made this offseason they’re still one of the best in the league. With the Capitals taking such a large hit due to cap restraints, I could see the Penguins winning the Metropolitan Division and have another 45-50 win season. Barring injury, this will still be the team to beat in the NHL.