The Pittsburgh Penguins will defend the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup in 2016-17 with mostly the same roster intact, for better and worse. The Penguins march through the Stanley Cup playoffs became an avalanche of destiny, resilience, and Sidney Crosby’s indomitable drive. From March through June, the Penguins would not be denied.
But starting over again is an entirely different challenge with fewer motivating factors to zealously step into harm’s way. And there are more opportunities to suffer injury for players who do commit to physical play or blocking shots. Depth, scoring and motivation are tested in different and prolonged ways in the regular season.
Can the Penguins succeed without playing with desperation and an intense hunger? Yes. Will they? One team stands in the Penguins way. Again.
Team Prediction: 100 points
Pin 100 points on the Penguins. Three scoring lines. Solid defensive corps seven deep, and a superior goaltending tandem. Young players such as Jake Guentzel, Thomas Di Pauli and, by February, Daniel Sprong will push for an NHL sweater.
The Penguins are simply better than most teams they will face, but the Eastern Conference will not have as many doormats as recent history. Carolina, New Jersey, Boston, will challenge for a playoff spot. The Rangers are vastly improved with an infusion of young talent like Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vessey and Pavel Buchnevich. Teams like Buffalo and Toronto will not be embarrassing bottom feeders worthy of a free skate. The revamped Eastern Conference provides no breathers for the Penguins. Oh, and Montreal has Carey Price back between the pipes.
4th through 12th in the Eastern Conference could look like the Parkway West Outbound on a Friday afternoon. The Penguins will have extended moments of struggles and adversity this season. Stanley Cup champions have been unable to repeat in the Salary Cap era for good reason. A short two-month offseason, a tediously long season, and…the Cup tends to leave a hangover.
The Penguins will start strong, falter, rebound, falter again, then gear up for the playoffs in March, again. Fans may begin lining up on the bridge when the Penguins remember Stanley Cups are not won in November and complacency emerges, but the team is good enough to regroup, at will.
The Capitals will again lead the division because it is more important to them to do so. The rest of the Metropolitan Division will be a tough game, so the Penguins will have to fight to 100 points.
The easy choice is Scott Wilson. Put Wilson down for 23 goals and 50 points. It will be a fine rookie season for Wilson, whose speed and ability to play at the net or in space should compliment Evgeni Malkin well. The Kunitz-Malkin-Wilson line showed explosive flashes in the preseason.
Look for Justin Schultz to have a breakout campaign under the tutelage of Defensemen Development Coach, Sergei Gonchar. Schultz is no longer encumbered by the pressure he experienced in Edmonton and now has an organization invested in polishing his game, without placing the demands of Top 4 minutes onto the defender. He will easily rack up 25 points, perhaps as many as 35 as the second power play point-man.Phil Kessel. Once Kessel adjusted to the Pittsburgh organization, once he felt comfortable and found a suitable line, Kessel exploded. The bet here is the adulation, the fan support, and the organization support will send Phil to a monster season. 35 goals, 70 points type monster season. Kessel scoring 35 can’t really be called a breakout because he has done it before and consistently, but look for Kessel to ride the wave all season. He finally has a supportive home and he will reward everyone.
Olli Maatta. The salary cap-strapped Penguins need Maatta to maintain Top 4 quality. The bet here is that he will not. Maatta will never be a flashy, consistent point producer. However, when Maatta is struggling, opponents tend to become flashy point producers. In the final two preseason games, Maatta and defensive partner Trevor Daley were disorganized, sloppy and together they were a liability. It will be Maatta’s responsibility to compliment the speedster, Daley. Maatta struggled in a similar situation last season with Kris Letang.
Conor Sheary/Bryan Rust could fail to live up to lofty expectations. Sheary will play on Sidney Crosby’s left wing and be responsible for a top line share of offense (when Crosby returns from a concussion). Sheary has not yet shown more than a tenacious desire to succeed. His work in the corners, puck retrieval and finishing ability could be called into question.
Bryan Rust will not get his spot beside Malkin back and his numbers/role will suffer accordingly.
–Every powerful team which struggles and every team which loses a goalie to injury will be linked to Marc Andre Fleury or Matt Murray. L.A. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick suffered a long term injury in the Kings season opener against the San Jose Sharks. Guesses here are the first Fleury rumors will appear before the end of the week if Quick is confirmed out for most of the season. (Despite Quick’s 10-year contract, the rumors will fly).
Every week, every good game, every bad game will enflame the goalie debate which has gripped the fan base.
Murray does not yet have a strong filter with the media, especially after losses. On several occasions, Murray has called out his own teammates, including in the World Cup. Such actions will not be acceptable in a room full of veteran, Stanley Cup champions. It is conceivable Murray or Fleury could express frustration over playing time after a loss (because we media pukes apparently will.not.stop.bringing.it.up.like.ever). Fleury will have more leeway inside the room because of his status to make such comments.
If the constant trade talk does not become a distraction, an unhappy goalie could well become a story. And it will linger. And linger.
–Crosby’s dominance. Sid is enjoying his resurgence and adulation. He will dominate this season like he did the playoffs. Can his linemates keep up? That’s what the trade deadline is for.—Mike Sullivan. The Penguins will take games off. The Penguins will at times look tired or disinterested. It is all part of being the Stanley Cup champion and playing hockey for nearly two years, uninterrupted. Will Sullivan, like his mentor John Tortorella, continue to preach fastidious shot blocking, and risk injury, throughout the regular season, too? Will he have a proper handle on when to pull back on the reigns and when to go to the whip? The guess here is that Sullivan will make a few mistakes this season, but ultimately figure it out. The Penguins veteran leadership are Sullivan fans, which removes the spectre of serious friction should things go sideways. How Sullivan leads the team will be an interesting story to follow, for no other reason than the unknown.
–Top 9 wingers. The Penguins have only four bonafide Top 9 wingers, and that includes Chris Kunitz who has struggled to produce offensively over the last couple seasons. That leaves the Penguins at least two wingers short of a legitimate Top 9. Scott Wilson figures to fill one slot. Conor Sheary will fill the other. If one or both of the wingers do not produce, GM Jim Rutherford will have little cap space to fill a big hole(s). Prospect Jake Guentzel doesn’t figure to be ready for a prime time role yet, nor does Carter Rowney.
–The Penguins will have to battle for a playoff spot. The battle will not be hard, but they cannot afford a protracted slump or hangover. The Eastern Conference is too good. So, when the Penguins flip the switch and go “full throttle’ will be interesting. Too much, too soon will leave them with an empty tank for the playoffs (See 1992-93). Waiting until the right moment could springboard them again the precipice of the Stanley Cup Final (see 1991-92).
–When will Bill Guerin become an NHL GM? Guerin will surely be under consideration for any, and every, midseason opening. If he wants it. He will be a good one.
The Penguins will determine their own fate and success for most of the season. There will be unforeseen adversity, injury, and slumps. It cannot be avoided. Any one of Montreal, New Jersey, Florida, New York Islanders could catch lightning in a bottle and challenge the Penguins or defeat them in a seven game series, but it is unlikely. The prediction here is the Penguins will have an Eastern Conference final rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning. And…lose. The Lightning are solid in all phases, more talented than everyone else in the NHL, except for the St. Louis Blues, and know how to win. In the last two seasons, Tampa Bay has lost in the Stanley Cup Final, despite outplaying the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 and without Steve Stamkos, pushed the Penguins to Game 7 in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final. If Stamkos were healthy, it would have been a different series.
Tampa Bay, with a large chip on their shoulder and a full compliment of talented forwards, will win the Stanley Cup. The Penguins will give push Tampa Bay harder than any team, but ultimately, the Lightning are too good. Sorry.
It’s hockey Season! Mike Asti will host Pittsburgh Postgame’s LIVE postgame show TONIGHT! We will tweet the links to listen and call in. We’re excited. We hope to do 60-70 postgame shows this season, with your favorite hockey analysts, bloggers and guests. The studio is set and ready to roll! It will be the only professional, LIVE postgame show in the city (beside the Penguins network). So, we hope you’ll tune it and call.