It's almost time to dive into the new season. The Pittsburgh Penguins will be the defending Stanley Cup Champions for the 4th time in their storied history, the team will get a full year of Mike Sullivan's "just play" mantra, and the are still some inevitable questions heading into this year's battle. Well, enough foreplay; let's get at it.
This is the next logical question heading into this season. Yeah, we get it that no team has won the Stanley Cup back-to-back since the 1997-1998 Red Wings and they needed an unbreakable salary cap and Scotty Bowman to do it. The Red Wings also had Larry Murphy and Niclas Lidstrom keeping the puck out of the zone and Federov, Yzerman, and Shanahan up front with unlimited money to keep them happy.
Excuses aside, there really isn't a reason to believe that the Penguins are incapable to repeating the mountainous task of winning the toughest prize in professional sports.
- The Penguins have literally the same roster as the same squad who won it all.
- Crosby, admittedly, slumped hard at the beginning of the season and swore it won't happen again.
- Phil Kessel noticeably found his game under Mike Sullivan's system and will return from surgery to put up the numbers we all thought we would.
- A full season of a healthy, beautiful, Olli Maatta.
- The young guns Rust, Sheary, Wilson, and Kuhnhackl aren't only locked up at a great price for another 2 years but they are coming into this season with exponentially more experience and comfort than last year.
2) HBK Line?
Will the HBK line stay together? Yes. Will they be as dominant as they were last year? Yes. They had a streak in which 29 games together they amassed 82 points together. They regularly "overwhelmed" the opposition on the ice during the playoffs. When you saw them on the ice; shit happened. Pending any lapse in chemistry from last year, expect this line to stay together.
3) Young Guns?
Can players like Murray, Rust, Wilson, Kuhnhackl, and Sheary stay impactful this season? I'd like to think so and I can imagine that was one of the major motivators in re-upping Cullen's contract. It was well known that Cullen took the WBS squad under his wing, showed them the ropes, and other tired metaphors which helped them acclimate to the NHL climate.
Murray is an elite talent who's meteoric rise to stardom is far from being a fluke. Rust, Kuhnhackl, and Sheary not only contributed but played a large role in the Penguins becoming a fearless, speedy, high scoring team. The playing style of the former-WBS talent is essential to the success of this team as much as anything else.
4) Just Play?
Sullivan's mantra of "Just Play" saturated every aspect of the organization. It was emblazoned on shirts during the playoffs, it was repeated to media every scrum, and it was what Sullivan got the team to believe in 2016. You could just feel it in your being that this wasn't the 2012 melt-down Penguins team, it wasn't the give up the lead 2015 Penguins, and it certainly wasn't the all show and no grow 2013 Penguins. This was a determined team who came back to win games, and played consistently to win the Cup this summer. This is Sullivan's team now, no question.
Where does Marc-Andre Fleury end up at the end of the 2016-17 season? I don't know where specifically, but I do have a feeling that he won't be shopping at Giant Eagle for Easter dinner.
The unfortunate writing is on the wall with the beloved rabbit-toothed tender. With Murray clearly earning the starting position in 2016 having MAF as a 5 million dollar back-up makes little sense. With the Penguins being over the cap of this writing and being able to only protect one goalie in the Vegas expansion draft it makes too much sense to get rid of Flower's NTC (no trade clause) contract so we can make the transition to the Murray-era.
It will be tough for the fan base but a no-brainer even for our well-hydrated octogenarian overlord.
With the passed anomaly of Crosby's slump last year, Kessel coming back from surgery, Malkin's typical slow start, and the mystical "Stanley Cup Hangover" its very possible for the Penguins not to come out of the gate like hot fire. The question is, without the "big three" can we lean on secondary scoring?
The answer is yes. with the unreal work horse of Letang leading the likes of Daley, Schulz and Maatta on the backend and the capable hands of Hagelin and Hornqvist paired with the infusion of young reckless talent the Penguins have, secondary scoring is a non-issue with this team.
7) Cap Room?
As of this writing the Penguins 3.3 million over the cap. The UFA's to deal with at the end of the year are Kunitz, Bonino, Cullen. which is around 6-7 million dollars worth of room. With the sad departure of Fleury this spring it will give the Penguins a descent return and possibly a roster player to fill any needs. It's hard to predict what will happen from today to the last leg of the season, I can't possibly fathom a large move or the Penguins being buyers or sellers this trade deadline/
8) Open Spots?
With the roster basically penned for this upcoming season it leaves very little room for someone to earn a spot over a contracted talent. There are a few long shots heading into camp:
- Dominic Simon - We was the other guy that wasn't Sprong. 25/23/48 in 68 games is an impressive rookie season in the AHL. With him being only 22 the sky is the limit for this guy.
- Daniel Sprong - Remember Sprong? The player that may have cost Johnston his job in Pittsburgh for refusing to play the dynamic RW'er. Sprong put in 5 goals in his last 10 games in WBS and showed no signs of slowing down. I can see him snagging a roster spot from Sheary and making the big club with a strong camp,
- Jake Guentzel - Jake came into WBS late in the season to accommodate the "black ace" call ups for the Pens. He put up an eye-opening 6 points in the 11 games he was afforded. Then his performance exploded in the Carder Cup playoffs becoming the top scorer for the Baby Penguins in the playoffs. With 14 points in 10 games he was signed to a new 3 year deal this summer. He is certainly in the Penguins future, but the question is when.