The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Stanley Cup odds: 8-1
Key additions: Ryan Reaves, RW; Matt Hunwick, D; Antti Niemi, G; Greg McKegg, C
Key departures: Marc-Andre Fleury, G; Oskar Sundqvist, C; Chris Kunitz, LW; Ron Hainsey, D; Nick Bonino, C; Trevor Daley, D; Matt Cullen, C; Derrick Pouliot, D
Can the Penguins become the first team since the New York Islanders of the early 1980s to win three straight Stanley Cups?
Well, they have two of the top five players in the world, so they give themselves a legitimate chance right there. The Penguins were forced to part with a number of players who helped them win two straight Cups, but the core remains intact and if Kris Letang can remain healthy for the season, there’s no reason to believe the Penguins cannot continue to be the class of the NHL. There has been no let-up in the performance level of either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Matt Murray is poised to start taking runs at the Vezina Trophy. Their top two lines are downright scary. They were the top-scoring team in the NHL last season and had the third-best power play. They were ridiculously good in one-goal games (19-3-1) and they have another emerging offensive star in Jake Guentzel, who received serious consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring. It all adds up to a Murder’s Row of talent in Pittsburgh and a team that could make history.
For a team that has won the past two Stanley Cups, the best-case scenario is obviously to keep on truckin’. While that may seem difficult given the grind that comes with the longest of playoff runs, keep in mind that Pittsburgh won its most recent chalice without its best defenseman, Kris Letang He’s one of the most prolific blueliners in the league when healthy. And wouldn’t you know it? He’s getting healthy. With the ascension of Justin Schultz in Letang’s absence, the Penguins have two devastating back-end threats.
Up front, Pittsburgh still has two of the best centers in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The fact the Pens have been able to augment the big-ticket guys with fast, effective youngsters such as Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary has meant their success has been sustained and will continue to be in the future. In goal, Matt Murray returns for his second year as a starter. Other than that injury prior to Game 1 of the playoffs, things have been pretty rosy for the lanky stopped, and veteran Antti Niemi backs him up. Can this team three-peat? Yes it can.
Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel have played a lot of hockey in the past few years, and that kind of wear and tear is difficult to shake off. If one of them — or two or three of them — has an off year or misses time due to a nagging injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise. And given that the Penguins’ forward corps is more top-heavy now (due to the departures of Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen), that would be a major issue.
And while Murray has been nothing but extraordinary in his young NHL career, eventually rival teams are going to get a book on him. When Marc-Andre Fleury was backing him up last season, the Penguins could turn to a fellow Cup champion and not lose any sleep. But Niemi is no Fleury, and should Murray scuffle or get hurt again, Pittsburgh’s Plan B will be more like a Plan C-minus. With a target on their backs all season long and hungry rivals such as Columbus, Washington and the Rangers waiting in the posts-season, the Penguins could easily bow out in the first round next April. They’ve certainly earned an extended summer break, even if they don’t want one.
THN’s PREDICTION: 1st in the Metropolitan. This is a team that has set the gold standard in the NHL and takes its status as the team to beat very, very seriously. There will be no let-up in Pittsburgh.
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