Where Do We Go From Here? by @msteiner90

The 2015-2016 season changed the Pittsburgh Penguins.
 
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Mario Lemieux Hoisting the Stanley Cup in 1992
Since drafting Mario Lemieux, the Penguins have built teams around offensive superstars scoring big time goals when it was all on the line. Every team’s front office wants to win Stanley Cups, but the Penguins have a unique history. With several bankruptcies and potential team movements dangled in front of Pittsburgh, the front office have placed unusual emphasis on drafting or signing players who put fans in the seats. Stanley Cups can save franchises, but it’s easier to draft, sign and retain superstars than it is to win a Stanley Cup. Just ask Toronto.

Once the superstars were here, the fans filled the seats. Then the real work started.

The Penguins’ management of the Mario Lemieux-era understood that Mario needed a cast and crew, but all it took was another superstar or two like Jaromir Jagr, Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens, a defensive leader in Paul Coffey, and a goaltender with some chops like Tom Barrasso. Sure, there were more names, but they filled their respective checking lines, and contributed like any other bottom-6 player would be expected to. And the team proved they knew how to build a champion by repeating as NHL champions in back-to-back years. Both season the Mario Lemieux led the playoff scoring race handedly.

Fast forward to the 2008-2009 season.
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Sidney Crosby Hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2009



Ray Shero worked to build a similar, high-octane offense, not unlike the Mario Lemieux-era Penguins. Sidney Crosby andEvgeni Malkin were the runaway statistical leaders of the team, with some role players down the line-up card including a talented, young Jordan Staal. The defensive core was led by an offensive minded Sergei Gonchar. Marc-Andre Fleury was finally starting to fill into the role of a top -0 netminder in the NHL. The formula worked again.

But just like the mid- to late 90’s, after the 2009 Stanley Cup the Penguins struggled. The Penguins knew what it took throughout the season to make it to the playoffs, but time and time again they were ousted prematurely. The multiple-superstar model that built the fan base, brought three Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh, and defined the organization was being questioned yearly. Evgeni Malkin (36 points) and Sidney Crosby (31 points) statistically dominated the entire 2009 Stanley Cup Playoff run. The next highest point total player was Henrik Zetterberg with 24 points. The next highest point total player on thePenguins was Bill Guerin with 15 points. But this system wasn’t working anymore. The league had changed.

But seven years later to the day, Sidney Crosby slid across the ice to lift another Stanley Cup over his head. The same Sidney Crosby who had endured media skepticism as his team sat in dead last in the ESPN NHL Power Rankings just before Christmas. The same Sidney Crosby who was rumored to disappear every year when the playoffs started. But this time, he was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy with only 19 total points in the playoffs, and he didn’t even lead his own team in overall points. In fact, no Penguin was even in the top 3 in overall playoff scoring. Logan Couture led the 2016 NHL playoffs in scoring with 30 points.

What changed about the NHL?

Advanced metrics have been alive and well in the NHL since the 1960’s in one form or another. But coupled with defensive coaching and neutral-zone trapping schemes, teams have been able to tune in on superstars and shut them down for games at a time. And that’s all it takes in the NHL playoffs. But in the 2015-2016 seaon, the struggles of Sidney Crosby sparked Jim Rutherford to make some critical personnel changes from December up until the trade deadline to spread out the scoring up and down the lineup card.

Depth in scoring is something that is a nice-to-have in the regular season. The Washington Capitals didn’t need it to win the President’s Trophy. They had two of the highest scoring lines in NHL history with a brick wall between their pipes in Braden Holtby. The third and fourth lines merely soaked up the time needed for Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetzov’s lines to catch their breath and grab a swig of water. And it worked, of course, until it didn’t.

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Nick Bonino Celebrating Immediately After Scoring the Game-Winning Goal to Eliminate the 2015-2016 President's Trophy Winning Washington Capitals 
The 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs were the first time that the Penguins watched their stars slump offensively, only to watch the team blossom. Mike Sullivan sent their top lines out to do the dirty work. Although Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still would place a puck in the net, the team’s ultimate goal was to get an uneven matchup for the HBK Line.

To get to this point, the Penguins had to change a mindset and philosophy that defined the organization’s now 50-year tenure. You can be a superstar without making the score sheet. You can thrive by letting players know that their job is first and foremost goal prevention. You can thrive by letting those same players know that you need to get back up after taking a shot off the thigh and take the puck up ice to place shots on net. Scoring in the NHL isn’t exactly random, and skill is certainly involved – but make no mistake, placing an inordinate amount of shots on any goaltender will yield goals. Period.

The 2015-2016 season marks a remarkable shift of mindset by the Penguins’ front office. The two-star system can still work, but not on its own. Don’t mistake goals by Connor Sheary or Bryan Rust as signs of their future ability to be Top-6 forwards in the NHL. Do not mistake Matt Murray’s excellent play as a sign he can be a Top-5 goaltender in the NHL. The key takeaway from this team is that when 19 players block shots, maintain possession, execute positive and timely defensive zone exits, provide networked support systems for offensive zone entries, place shots on target, and follow up for rebounds - the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The equation is simple to spell out but difficult to execute. This phenomenon is amplified when you have players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang adding elements of skill, creativity, and vision to a well drawn-up plan by the coaching staff.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2015-2016 Stanley Cup Playoff run will change the way general managers in the NHL do business. And that change might mark the end of the perceived need for players like Tom Sestito. That change might mark the end of fighting in the NHL, not by rule but instead by general managers taking a look at how valuable every single roster spot is, If a team has an opportunity to call-up a Jonathan Druoin from their farm-system, they might also take that opportunity to place a guy like Tom Wilson on waivers. Of course, not every general manager plays the copycat game, but inevitably many general managers will. And you will see a shift in the NHL in this coming season.
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2015-2016 Stanley Cup Championship Team Photo
The Penguins took players who normally might have spent a few more years in the minors, refining their skills to maybe one-day be a Top-6 forward and instead just threw them into an NHL bottom-6 role – to thrive or to falter. In the 2016-2017 season, the NHL will be faster and more skilled – largely due to the influential role of the Penguins and the Stanley Cup that they won changing their approach to the game.

And with all of that in mind, we must ask – where do we go from here?

The building blocks of the Pittsburgh Penguins, thanks largely to Ray Shero, will largely be in place until the 2021 season. But, there still are some question marks that are characteristic of any season's beginning.

Here’s what we know:


1. The Penguins’ Top-6 forwards and Top-4 defensemen are largely unaffected by the off-season.

2. Fleury will start the season between the pipes, and once Matt Murray comes back - cue the goaltender controversy and trade rumors.

3. Every player who played a large portion of the 82 game season, 24 game playoffs, and World Cup of Hockey will be worn out.

4. The Penguins are tight on cap space and a movement of Marc-Andre Fleury and/or Chris Kunitz may occur at some point early in the season to open space and finalize their short-list of players who will be exposed to the 2017 Expansion Draft.

Matt Cullen is coming off of the most remarkable seasons of his career…at age 39. Matt Cullen displayed leadership, but that’s an intangible that is arguable. What isn’t arguable about his season was that :

· Matt Cullen was a scoring threat on the fourth line.

· He absorbed penalty kill minutes, he put pucks in the net, he backchecked, he blocked shots, and he was relentless on the ice.

· He’ll be 40 for the upcoming season.

· He just played an entire NHL season and he iced that cake with 24 playoff games. He’s going to be tired.

Matt Cullen will have a tough time replicating what he did last season. And as the season progresses, the Penguins’ management will most likely start turning to Oskar Sundqvist to fill that role. And you know what? It’ll probably be okay. Oskar Sundqvist has some refinement to do in the defensive zone face-off circle, but he’ll have his legs.

The loss of Ben Lovejoy won’t be huge, but the development of Derrick Pouliot will be.

Ben Lovejoy has been a 5-6 defenseman who was a pivotal role player, but largely unnoticed on the score sheets. Ray Shero knows that, and paid him. Derrick Pouliot must know this is it for him. This is his last shot with this coaching group. He’s a first round draft pick who has sat by and watched the guy who was drafted after him in the second round (Olli Maatta) take a solidified position in the Penguins Top-4, and sign a contract paying him $4M per year on average through 2021. This is Derrick Pouliot’s last year under contract, and you can believe what you want to believe about his work ethic, his attitude, his positioning or his skills – this is his year. He has returned after a summer of off-season training with Gary Roberts in better condition than past seasons. He's looked a little rusty in his first few games, but he's progressing and showing better touch each preseason game. He has all the factors he needs to find the motivation. He has the coaching. He just needs the opportunity, and with the cap space situation combined with any injuries he just might get it.

Derrick Pouliot Returning In-Shape After the Off-Season
There are some concerns about losing a right-handed defenseman in Ben Lovejoy for the wildcard that is Derrick Pouliot, but those things can be worked on in training camp and in the regular season.

We might just need another scoring threat, in case we see a sophomore slump from the “Wilkes-Barre guys”.

Don’t be surprised if the Wilkes-Barre guys have a sophomore slump. It may be a blessing to helping keep the youthful momentum.

Sophomore slumps are part of sports – and the Penguins players of past and present are no stranger to them. The team had a long season – longer than any other team not named the San Jose Sharks. Connor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl were showing their wear and tear in the Stanley Cup Final. But, Connor Sheary still has a two-way contract, and healthy scratches are available to Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl if they’re having a rough spell.

Scott Wilson Stickhandling Through a Defender in the 2016-2017 Preseason


Scott Wilson may have been the greatest talent out of the bunch before his injury – and he will be back. He’s probably got something to prove after missing out on the playoff run, and a chip on his shoulder might be the spark the Penguins are always looking for.

The ethos of a new coach with a new plan might wear off for Mike Sullivan, or the Stanley Cup win may have bronzed that ethos into the walls of the locker room. But the most important leaders in the locker room, Sid and Geno, have had a weight lifted off of their shoulders that was starting to bear down. And how that affects those two, might be the biggest change we will see this season.

This season may be a lot of the same, but it will also see a lot of change.

The Penguins 50th Anniversary Logo Unveiled for the 2016-2017 Season
A back-to-back Stanley Cup Championship hasn’t been done since the Red Wings pulled it off in 1998. That’s not to curb our enthusiasm, but just as a subtle reminder that it’s not easy or expected. But - if they did it, it wouldn't be the first time the Penguins have won back-to-back Stanley Cups either.

The Penguins always position themselves to be in the playoffs, and after that it’s anyone’s. That’s what makes the NHL Playoffs special.

The expansion draft and salary cap situation has already put the writing in the wall that this season will see big changes. No matter what they are, you can trust this organization has a plan – just like they always have. That’s what makes the Penguins one of the most special organizations in all of professional sports.
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