Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-’18 Season Preview

Pittsburgh Penguins

50-21-11, 111 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Beat Nashville in the Stanley Cup Finals

Additions: D Matt Hunwick, G Antti Niemi, RW Ryan Reaves

Subtractions: C Nick Bonino (signed with NSH), F Matt Cullen (signed with MIN), D Trevor Daley (signed with DET), G Marc-Andre Fleury (drafted by VGK), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with CBJ), D Ron Hainsey (signed with TOR), LW Chris Kunitz (signed with TBL), C Kevin Porter (signed with BUF), D Mark Streit (signed with MTL), C Oskar Sundqvist (traded to STL), D David Warsofsky (signed with COL)

Offseason Analysis: After hoisting the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, is it ok to just write the Penguins into their third-straight Finals appearance?

To the joy of 30 other fan-bases, I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

Don’t get me wrong, Pittsburgh is still the class of the Eastern Conference and has its eyes set on a three-peat. Though they had their fair share of departures this offseason, the Penguins return the “Sid and the Kids” line (Jake Guentzel, Captain Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary) as well as the dominant second line of Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, so last year’s best offense will expect to continue its scoring ways.

However, the potential chinks in the armor start appearing in the bottom-six as GM Jim Rutherford had to replace Bonino, Cullen and Kunitz – all of whom appeared in 91 or more regular and postseason games last season. In particular, I’m most concerned about the Pens’ third line center.

What needs to be remembered about recent Penguins third lines is that they don’t fit the typical mold. Few third lines are counted on to provide many goals, instead preferring to slow down the opposing offense. But in Pittsburgh, scoring depth extends beyond the top two lines. Bonino and Kunitz provided a combined 66 points last season from the third line, including 27 markers.

Something tells me Head Coach Mike Sullivan will expect their replacements to perform similarly, but who will they be?

As expected, Sullivan has played around with his bottom two lines throughout camp. In Pittsburgh’s most recent preseason contest, Tom Kuhnhackl, Greg McKegg and Bryan Rust made up the third line with the fourth including Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney and Reaves.

Rust can certainly continue the tradition of this new-age third line, but I have my doubts about Kuhnhackl’s career .37 points-per-game and McKegg’s nine points in 65 NHL games. Unless Sullivan gets pleasantly surprised by their performances or accepts a more typical third line, Rutherford might be testing the trade market early.

Considering Hainsey and Streit were trade deadline rentals, Pittsburgh’s main defensive loss was soon-to-be 34-year-old Daley, who managed 5-14-19 totals last season, but 32-year-old Hunwick should be a serviceable replacement having earned 19 points of his own in Toronto last year.

The Penguins also have the luxury of D Kris Letang returning to play. Letang managed only 41 games last year before his campaign was cut short by a mid-season neck injury. Though his 11-year career has been dotted with injuries, Letang has been a potent force when on the ice. He manages .83 points-per-game, including .259 power play points-per-game, for his career and will be a welcome reintroduction to a defensive corps that scored 177 points last season – the most of any Eastern Conference blue line.

Pens fans, you know what we have to discuss next. Ready tissues.

We turn our attention to Pittsburgh’s crease, a spot the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft will no longer occupy. Instead, it is his protégé Matthew Murray that will assume the true starting role with Niemi as his backup as compared to last year’s “1A-1B” tactic.

Though it’s a bizarre idea to question a goalie that won two Stanley Cups before playing his second NHL season, I’m intrigued to see how Murray responds to undoubtedly being “the guy” for Pittsburgh. Gone are the days of a more-than-competent backup (sorry Niemi, but you’re not impressing anybody with your 2016-’17 .892 save percentage) to fall back on, so all the responsibility rests firmly on Murray’s shoulders. Judging from his 32-10-4 record last season, he’ll react just fine.

Offseason Grade: D

If a “C” is average, the Penguins have to score below it for simply not doing enough to solidify their third line. Maybe McKegg can surprise, but a team trying to win its third-straight Stanley Cup should not be taking such a risk on one of the main things that separates it from the competition. If Rutherford misses on his roll of the dice, the selling price for a viable piece could have dire consequences for the future.

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