For the first time in 19 years, a team will enter this NHL season twice-defending champions. The Pittsburgh Penguins will look to be the first team to win three in a row since some team called the Islanders did it in the 80s. We’ll forgive you if you’ve never heard of them. The Penguins still have the star power at the top of the roster to be a hard out for anyone come April and May. And unlike some previous champs, like one in this area code, they haven’t had to completely erode their depth in a deal with the devil for silverware.
’16-’17 Record: 50-21-11 111 points (2nd in Metro, won it all)
Team 5v5 Stats: 50.1 CF% (16th) 51.3 SF% (6th) 52.6 SCF% (6th) 8.5 SH% (5th) .926 SV% (8th)
Special Teams: 23.1 PP% (4th) 79.8 PK% (20th)
Goalies: Well now it’s “Live Without A Net,” if you will. Matt Murray gets the #1 role again, as he did last year, but he will not have the safety net of Marc-Andre Fleury behind him. There aren’t too many huge questions about Murray, but he only has 60 regular season appearances to his name in two years. While he does have two rings, he only played half of the first run so again, we’re talking about just over 30 games in the playoffs. Maybe that’s enough of a sample size for everyone, and he certainly hasn’t put a foot wrong in that sample. Murray’s .932 SV% at evens was 5th best in the league behind names like Bobrovsky, Holtby, Price, and Gibson. That’s three Vezina winners there, so that’s pretty good company to keep. Murray doesn’t have to be that good for the Penguins to be good, but if he is they’re once again pretty fucking formidable which is going to get annoying sharpish.
And Murray had better be good, and more importantly healthy which has been the challenge for him, because if he’s not either then the task falls to Antti Niemi. And no one wants to see that, at least not in the Steel City. Niemi has been just about the worst goalie who got anything resembling starter’s minutes the past couple years, and certainly last year his .904 SV% at evens was the worst among any goalie even splitting starts. Sure, he was behind the defensively-clueless Dallas Stars, but the Penguins aren’t exactly defensively ADT themselves as they have no problem trading chances. Do that with Niemi backing it all up and suddenly there’s going to be bubbling water beneath you.
Defense: It obviously feels weird to say about a team that’s rolled up two parades in a row, but the Penguins blue line doesn’t exactly blow you away. The top pairing is dynamite, as Kris Letang is one of the premier puck-movers in the league and Brian Dumoulin is one of the more underrated blue-liners around. But of course Letang comes with the issue of being held together with duct tape and string. After that though? It’s a wonder how they’ve done it, which makes you think Mike Sullivan is some sort of bayou shaman. They’ve resuscitated Justin Schultz’s career, but now he’s getting seriously paid. He’s now second-pairing full-time, but he will likely be skating with Ian Cole who is bad. And not like in a Dusty Rhodes way. Bad in the actual definition. I used to to think Olli Maatta was going to be a thing. It’s been four seasons now, and he’s only 23, but for the most part he’s just looked slow and uninteresting. Maybe settling in on the third pairing is what causes him to spring to life, though playing with Matt Hunwick generally causes one to spring to death. It feels like the Pens have been waiting for Derrick Pouliot for just as long as Maatta, and yet it hasn’t happened. This blue line just might be this, and it’s been enough for the past two years. I guess we can’t really say much more than that, but it still feels like it needs one move just as it did last year (though they made a few and Ron Hainsey did make something of a difference). It’s hard to believe a team could miss Trevor Daley, but here we are.
Forwards: If you’re used to a Cup-winner having to shed a ton of talent, then you might be caught off-guard by what the Penguins roll out this season at forward. Sure, Chris Kunitz is gone, and seeing as how he was the only player who could ever play with Sid for years to the point where he got a Canadian team call-up on par with Rob Zamuner, you’d think the whole thing would collapse. But it won’t. Nick Bonino has cashed in on flourishing in the hammock role behind Sid and Geno in Nashville. Matt Cullen has also gone back to Minnesota, but he’s 40. And that’s just about all they’ve lost. And as long as Crosby and Malkin are here and healthy, always something of a question mark, the Penguins can’t really help but be good at the worst. Guentzel, Rust, Kessel, Sheary, and Hagelin are here to populate the top six with oodles of speed on the wings, playing into the “get it the fuck up there as quickly as fucking possible” system that Sullivan has employed. That’s how the Penguins can have middle-of-the-road possession numbers, or worse at times, and yet come out on top. They can transition faster than just about anyone, and their talent leads them to getting better chances than their opponents when teams want to go 4×400 with them. Other than health, there’s no reason to think they can’t do it all again.
The fourth line is something of a sucking sound, as they strangely traded for Ryan Reaves and the Purina dumpster he lives in. Whether they can find a factory to place it behind is going to be a real challenge. But if the only complaint a team has about their forwards is their fourth line, that’s a good place to be.
Outlook: One would have to think adding another half-season to the odometer the past two years would have some effect on the Penguins. It probably will, but not hugely. You’d think the defense is thin enough to have some problems, but Murray can bail most of that out. The other thing to consider is who in the East is coming to get them? The Caps have taken something of a step back as large as any the Penguins have, and they have that whole Pittsburgh hoodoo to get over. The Leafs? Unproven and an even thinner blue line and goaltending situation than the Penguins. Same goes for the Lightning. Everyone else in the East has major questions. If health or overall exhaustion/boredom don’t grab the Pens, there’s really no reason to think they’re not going to be playing well into May again at the worst.
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