The Pittsburgh Penguins won their fourth Stanley Cup last year after defeating the San Jose Sharks in 6 games. The last team to win back-to-back Stanley Cup was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Can the Penguins accomplish what hasn’t been done in almost two decades?
After getting off to a rough start in the first half of the 2015-16 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins made a coaching change, promoting the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan. As soon as he took over the behind the bench the team began winning and finished the season second in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 48-26-8. The team defeated the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks en route to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup Championship. The organization was so impressed with Sullivan’s work they awarded him a contract extension through the 2019-20 season. Although what the Penguins did was incredible, the real question is can they repeat the success they had last year again?
To put it simply? Absolutely.
The Penguins have retained virtually all of the players that helped them capture their fourth championship title in 2016 and are excelling under a full year of Mike Sullivan. After months of rumors regarding Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh decided to stand pat at the trade deadline and hold on to both of their goaltenders. It makes sense why the Penguins decided to stick with Fleury now, because in case of injury to Matt Murray Pittsburgh will have Fleury to guard the pipes and hopefully lead the team all the way again. Matt Murray has dominated in his first full season in the National Hockey League with a record of 23-8-3 with a 2.29 GAA and .926% save percentage. At 22 and an average annual value of $3.75 million a year, it’s clear Murray is the future of the franchise and steal for what his contract is worth. However, just because Murray is excelling at an exponential pace, doesn’t take away anything Fleury has done in his time in Pittsburgh. This season he has appeared in 31 games collecting a 15-8-5 record with a 3.15 GAA and .902% save percentage. It’s unclear where the 32 year old netminder will be playing next season, but it could be with another championship ring on his finger.
The Penguins offense has also been a reason why repeated success is very possible. Pittsburgh currently leads the NHL in goals for and goals for per game with 221 and 3.45 respectively. Although their offense is spread out pretty evenly, a large portion of those goals has come from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
Crosby, 29, has been a phenom before he even entered the NHL in 2005 and has continued to dazzle the league night after night. After totaling 85 points in 82 games last season, the Pens captain has amassed 69 points in 58 games consisting of 34 goals and 35 assists. If Crosby continues on his current pace he would reach the 40 goal mark for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are also having themselves wonderful statistical years. Malkin, 30, has always slightly been in the shadow of Crosby (media wise) if you’re not a Penguins fan, but the Russian center is an elite talent just like the team’s captain. Malkin has not only won numerous individual awards, but he is over a point per game player throughout his career and has two Stanley Cup Championships under his belt. This season he’s second on the team in points and goals while also first in assists with 29 goals and 38 assists. Kessel has thrived since arriving to the Penguins last year. After leading the team in playoff points en route to the Stanley Cup, Kessel has continued his high level of offensive production in 2017. Kessel has already matched his point totals last year with 59 and could very well finish the season with 70 points and 30 goals for the first time since the 2013-14 season. With Phil under contract through the 2021-22 season, he will be a staple in the Penguins’ forward core for a long time.
Defense has always been where the Penguins have been weakest in their lineup. Aside from Kris Letang, Pittsburgh doesn’t have another top two defenseman. Knowing this, General Manager Jim Rutherford went out this trade deadline and stockpiled numerous top four defensemen in case Letang sustains an injury. Unfortunately for the Penguins, Letang was injured in a 3-1 Penguins win February 21st and is more complicated than the day-to-day status that the team originally thought.
Thankfully, the surplus of defensemen Rutherford gathered can help the Penguins over the hurtle until the playoffs where Letang will likely be 100% again. Pittsburgh traded draft picks and an AHL forward for both Ron Hainsey of the Carolina Hurricanes and Mark Streit of the Philadelphia Flyers (and Tampa Bay Lightning for 10 minutes??). These additions will be able to eat up Letang’s minutes along with defensemen Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and Ian Cole. When the playoffs roll around the Penguins will have a plethora of defensemen, but that’s never really a bad problem to have.
Will the Penguins repeat success and win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons for the first time in two decades? It’s hard to tell. Can they? Absolutely and they have all the pieces and skill to make history.