2017-18 Bench Life NHL Previews: 1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Part 31 of 31 (!) in our NHL previews where Ballantyne, Burgess and I rank each NHL team 1 through 31 and give you an outlook on their season. Each of our previews will be given to you in order of where we collectively power ranked that team.

Check out our other previews:

#31. Colorado Avalanche , #30. Vegas Golden Knights, #29. Vancouver Canucks, #28. Detroit Red Wings, #27. New Jersey Devils, #26. Arizona Coyotes, #25. Buffalo Sabres#24. Winnipeg Jets#23. New York Islanders, #22. Florida Panthers, #21. Los Angeles Kings, #20. Carolina Hurricanes, #19. Philadelphia Flyers#18. New York Rangers, #17. Calgary Flames, #16. Boston Bruins#15. Ottawa Senators#14. San Jose Sharks#13. Toronto Maple Leafs#12. St. Louis Blues#11. Montreal Canadiens#10. Edmonton Oilers#9. Columbus Blue Jackets#8. Anaheim Ducks#7. Dallas Stars, #6. Chicago Blackhawks, #5. Minnesota Wild, #4. Tampa Bay Lightning, #3. Washington Capitals, #2. Nashville Predators

2016-17 Recap

Record:  50-21-11 (111 points) 2nd in Metropolitan Division (2nd Overall)
GPG:
3.39 (1st)
GAPG: 2.79 (17th)
PP%:
23.1% (3rd)
PK%: 
79.8% (20th)
Corsi For %: 49.8% (15th)

Another year and another Cup for Crosby and co. The team stormed to an impressive 50-21-11 record which was good for second in the Eastern Conference and were able to capture their second Stanley Cup in two seasons. The Penguins were anchored by a veteran core of Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury, Kessel, Hornqvist, Bonino and Hagelin. The  team received huge contributions from rookies Jake Guentzel and Matt Murray. Former Edmonton Oilers outcast Justin Schultz had a huge breakout 51 point performance and looks like he could be another lethal weapon for the now and future on Pittsburgh’s backend. Everything worked out pretty alright for these Penguins.

 

2017-18 Outlook

List of Key Additions: Matt Hunwick, Greg McKegg, Ryan Reaves, Riley Sheahan

List of Key Departures: Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ron Hainsey, Chris Kunitz, Mark Streit, Oskar Sundqvist, Scott Wilson

The roster was definitely hit with a bit of a cap crunch. The blueline has lost a few veterans but will be fine so long as Letang can play a full season (which might be a little too unlikely at this point) with players like Schultz, Maata and Dumoulin steping up and hopefully taking their flashes of upside and showing it consistently over a full season.

The Ryan Reaves move got some bad press given the fact that they downgraded a first round pick (31st overall) to a second round pick (51st) just to acquire the fourth liner from the Blues. While it does seem like bad asset management, he does add an edge to the team that will be helpful come playoff time.

The recent trade for Riley Sheahan fills the third line centre role left vacant by the departure of Nick Bonino. This pickup should balance out the Penguins and give the team three legitimate scoring lines.

The loss of Fleury to Vegas effectively takes the training wheels off of Matt Murray. But Murray’s .925 save percentage in his first 65 regular season games as well as his stellar playoff play should give the Penguins plenty of confidence in the 23 year-old.

X-Factors

Team MVP: Sidney Crosby

What is there left to say about this guy? Crosby has captained his team to three Stanley Cups while winning the Conn Smyth as playoff MVP for two of them (2016 & 2017).  Sid the Kid has also won two Art Ross Trophies as the league’s top point scorer (2007 & 2014),  now has two “Rocket” Richard Trophies as the NHL’s top goal scorer (2010 & 2017), three Ted Lindsay Awards (2007, 2013, 2014) and two Hart Trophies (2007, 2014) while being selected to four NHL First All-Star Teams (2007, 2013, 2014, 2016) and three NHL Second All-Star Teams (2010, 2015, 2017).

At age 30 Crosby doesn’t have anything left to prove at this point, yet he is still scores at a dizzying pace while remaining one of the most defensively responsible centres in hockey. After playing 801 career regular season games and 148 playoff games it’s fair to wonder how much is left in the tank. Given his 44 goal, 89 point 2016-17 season that saw him add even more hardware to his trophy case, I think it’s safe to say that Sid has a whole lot more where that came from.

Team’s Strength: Impact/game-breaking players

Most teams would kill for one of Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Murray, Guentzel or Kessel (except for Toronto evidently). The Pittsburgh Penguins can go into any close game and know that there’s a high chance that any of their star players can single-handedly win them a game.

Crosby and Malkin could very well be the greatest 1st line-2nd line centre combo in NHL history. They’re right up there with Lemieux & Francis,  Yzerman & Fedorov and Gretzky & Messier. Last season they were the league’s highest scoring teammates with a combined 77 goals between the two (Crosby with 44 and Malkin with 33). Both players are ear-marked for the Hockey Hall of Fame and a few more productive years will cement their place among the pantheon of NHL greats.

The Penguins have done an excellent job of surrounding these two cornerstone centres with supplementary stars to help carry the load. Letang can hang in the Norris trophy conversation when healthy, Matt Murray has already backstopped the team to two Cups at the young age of  23 years old, Jake Guentzel looked strong in an abbreviated 40 game rookie regular season that then saw him rack up 21 points in 25 playoff games, and to quote Dave Nonis in 2015, “Whatever team wins the Stanley Cup this year will have a Phil Kessel in the lineup. I can guarantee that.” Two years after being shipped out Toronto, Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion… twice.

Team’s Weakness: Stanley Cup Hangover

It’s tough to even make it to back-to-back Cup Finals and even tougher to actually win both. Last season’s Pittsburgh Penguins team was the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since Detroit did it in ’97 and ’98. What makes this even crazier is that, even with a summer full of champagne and parades with some cap-induced roster turnover, the Penguins are still considered front runners for the Stanley Cup.

The odds are certainly stacked against Pittsburgh to win three Cups in a row. The last team to even make three Finals in a row without necessarily winning any of the was the Edmonton Oilers who were runner-ups in ’83 and won in ’84 and ’85. The last team to win at least three Stanley Cups in a row was the New York Islanders who won four each year from ’80 to ’83. Given league expansion, salary caps with increased training and talent across the league, it seems inconceivable for a team to bunch that many Cup wins together anymore. The odds are stacked against Pittsburgh to three-peat given the absurd amount of games they’ve played and offseason rest that it would entail.

Rookies/Farm:

This veteran Penguins team isn’t going into the season with any impact rookies. Young players like Guentzel, Murray, Maatta, Rust, Sheary and Dumoulin have already established themselves as lineup regulars.

The big jewel that remains in Pittsburgh’s system is dynamic winger Daniel Sprong. The 6’0″ Dutch right winger was a second round (46th overall) pick in 2015. He showed off some serious scoring touch with the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders with a career 261 points across four seasons and 199 games.

The book on Sprong is that he has tremendous hands and puck skills. When he was drafted in 2015 Bob McKenzie compared him to Alex Semin. While that may not sound promising people often forget that Semin had scored at least 70 points in three other seasons and had seven seasons with more than 20 goals. He is already off to a hot 14 point in 13 game start with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL this season.  All signs point to Pittsburgh taking their time with Sprong, but don’t be surprised if we see a late season Guentzel-like call-up if there are any injuries to Pittsburgh’s top six.

Key Player: Kris Letang

Letang

Via Own the Puck Tableau: http://ownthepuck.blogspot.ca/

Kris Letang has a reputation as an elite puckmoving defender and deservedly so. When he’s on the ice he opens up the game completely with his accurate breakout passes and explosive skating. The key to that sentence is “when he’s on the ice”. Since the 2012-13 lockout shortened season Letang has suited up in 218 regular season games out of a possible 328 (not including the beginning of this season). He was a huge in Pittsburgh’s 2016 Cup run chipping in with 15 points in 23 playoff games while logging in a huge TOI of 28:53 per game.

He was injured for the entirety of last year’s Cup run and it showed. For anyone that watched the games, Pittsburgh looked pretty overmatched in their series against the Capitals and even at times in Finals against the Predators. Without Letang to lean on, the Penguins blueline was a less than ideal combination of youth and journeymen. They were getting pushed around in their own end and had trouble springing their forwards on the break. This resulted in the Capitals out-shooting them in all seven games of the series with the Penguins barely scraping by. If Fleury and Murray weren’t standing on their heads all playoffs long then Pittsburgh doesn’t win that 2017 Stanley Cup.

Going into this year it is vital to Pittsburgh’s success, now more than ever, that Letang stays healthy and plays well. Pittsburgh lost Hainsey, Streit and Daley in free agency (and as a Leafs I can tell you first-hand that picking up Hunwick does not move the needle) and without Fleury splitting starts with Murray, the Penguins’ weaker blueline will be a focal point in when other teams gameplan for them.

Our Rankings

T. Waind: 3rd

C. Burgess: 1st

B. Ballantyne: 1st


Obviously it’s going to be tough to threepeat. It’s almost impossible in this day and age. Not to mention there are legitimate concerns about this Pittsburgh team. Matt Murray has never played a full regular season. Without Fleury as a safety net it’ll be interesting to see how fresh Murray is come playoff time. Their blueline remains relatively thin beyond Letang and Schultz. Also, while they are still amazing, their core of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang are another year older.

That being said, this team still remains one of the most talented rosters in the NHL and are poised to make history and have a legitimate shot at winning back-to-back-to-back Stanley Cups. It would be pretty cool to see and would cement their status as a “modern day dynasty”.

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