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2017-18 Penguins Preview – Pittsburgh Penguins – PenguinPoop Blog

2017-18 Penguins Preview

If you’re like me, you passed your summer lolling in a bucolic post-Cup haze, secure in the knowledge that our Penguins once again proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re the crème of the NHL crop.

As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. It’s time for us to put our hard-earned Cup on the line.

There’ll be challengers aplenty, for sure, eager to snatch Lord Stanley’s glittering chalice from our trophy case. Columbus added front-line sniper Artemi Panarin in a big trade with Chicago. The Rangers landed Kevin Shattenkirk, a coveted offensive defenseman. Led by glitzy No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick and a bevy of talented kids, Philly is poised for a leap. So are the Hurricanes. And that’s just the Metro.

Can our Pens fight off the contenders and become the first team since the 1981-82 New York Islanders to three-peat? I’ll dust off my crystal ball and try to provide an answer.

First, let’s dwell on the positives. There are lots of ‘em.

Star Power

Although Toronto is rapidly gaining ground, the Pens still possess the best collection of high-end skill players in the league. For sheer star power, no club can match the quartet of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel, to say nothing of defensemen Kris Letang and Justin Schultz.

In particular, the quicksilver trio of Crosby, Guentzel and Conor Sheary promises to be downright lethal. Likewise, Malkin and Kessel form a deadly duo, especially on the power play. If Carl Hagelin or Scott Wilson can ably man the port side, the Pens will boast two terrific lines.

Dee-fense

Shorn of Letang, the Pens’ no-name defense received a baptism by fire last spring. By all accounts, the blueline crew passed with flying colors. Schultz proved that his heady regular-season production and overall steady play were no fluke. Playing through painful injuries, Ian Cole and Brian Dumoulin were rock-solid and showed a ton of guts.

Olli Maatta had his moments. Better yet, the young Finn appears to have found a step over the summer, which could signal a return to his rookie-season form. Free-agent Matt Hunwick, solid on the PK, and seventh man Chad Ruhwedel provide quality depth.

If “Tanger” stays healthy, defense won’t be an issue. The same goes for goaltending and icy cool Matt Murray, who takes over as full-time starter.

Intangibles

By all accounts, Crosby’s obsessed with winning another Cup. That’s great news. Over the past two seasons, he’s emerged as hockey’s finest leader since Steve Yzerman, ironically the last NHL captain to win back-to-back Cups.

Like his boyhood idol, Sid works his tail off at both ends of the rink and sets a sterling example for teammates, young and old. How can you not follow his lead?

Malkin, too, has emerged as a driving force. Nobody stood up for the team last season more than “Geno”. When the chips are down, the big Russian always seems to step up, often in dynamic fashion.

Nor does it end with the “Two-Headed Monster”. Patric Hornqvist would skate through a brick wall if you asked him to. Even with the departure of veteran leaders Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz, there are plenty of character guys to show the way.

Coach ‘Em Up

Is there a better skipper in all of hockey than Mike Sullivan? He’s a players’ coach, master psychologist and taskmaster all rolled into one, with a God-given knack for squeezing the most from his troops. He treats his players like men and they respond. “Sully’s” a great X’s and O’s guy, too.

Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi and defensive whiz Jacques Martin round out a very capable staff.

Gee, Buker, with all this going for us, the Pens must be a shoe-in to capture a third-straight Cup, right?

Wrong. There are plenty of reasons for concern.

Shuffle the Deck

It’s a harsh reality of the salary-cap era. No team stays intact for very long. That’s part of what makes the Pens’ back-to-back Cups so remarkable…and rare.

GM Jim Rutherford did an amazing job last season of minimizing roster turnover. This summer was a far different story. Any way you slice it, the locals took a significant hit. Centers Cullen and Nick Bonino, defensemen Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey, and mainstays Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury all left for greener pastures.

Rutherford did his best to plug the gaps. While I applaud JR for not forcing a trade, the gaping hole at center remains, yawning like a veritable Grand Canyon in the middle of the lineup.

Bonino and Cullen left some awfully big skates to fill. For starters, they combined for 31 goals last season—excellent output from bottom-six centers. They led all black-and-gold forwards in shorthanded ice time. Bonino blocked a ton of shots; Cullen was excellent in the faceoff circle. Together, they shouldered a sizeable workload, which helped keep Sid and Geno fresh.

Just as important, each was capable of filling a top-six role in the event of an injury. A vital trait when you consider Crosby’s concussion history and the fact that Malkin has missed 45 games over the past two seasons.

For now, the Pens will make do with retread Greg McKegg, who they seem to like, and Carter Rowney, a pleasant surprise down the homestretch and in the playoffs. But make no mistake, it’s a significant drop-off.

Bottom-Six Blues

One of the qualities that separated the Pens from the pack was the ability to roll four productive lines. Trades, attrition and an abrupt change in philosophy may lead to chemistry issues and a power shortage, especially on the hodge-podge fourth line.

Tired of watching his stars take a beating, Rutherford imported Ryan Reaves from St. Louis to ride shotgun. While the burly right wing—regarded by many as the league’s toughest player—figures to shield our stars from undo abuse, it remains to be seen whether the 225-pound slugger can keep pace.

Reaves’ presence also creates a logjam at right wing. If he’s penciled in on the fourth line and Sheary and Kessel occupy the top two starboard slots, where do Hornqvist and Bryan Rust fit in?

Been There, Done That

We’ve seen signs of it this preseason. Indeed, on a couple of occasions the Pens’ A-team displayed all the fiber of a plate of limp spaghetti sans the meatballs.

Put another way, it’s awfully hard to be hungry after you’ve indulged in a feast. Which, in hockey terms, our guys did by winning back-to-back Cups.

Does the fire still burn?

PREDICTION

Barring a catastrophic run of injuries, the Penguins should have enough to eclipse our Metropolitan Division rivals. Without a significant upgrade at third-line center, I fear that’s as far as we’ll go.

Even if Rutherford gets his man, the wear and tear of two consecutive Cup runs will eventually take its toll. Sadly, look for Tampa Bay—or the rising young Leafs—to unseat the Pens as Eastern Conference champs.

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10 Comments

  1. the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
    October 3, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Quick update,

    Pouliot to Vancouver for a 6′-5 D man Pedan and a 4th round pick next year 2018. This isn’t a blockbuster trade but certainly doesn’t hurt and may help the team.

  2. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    October 2, 2017 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rick,
    It has been a while…I still think we will need a major upgrade at third line center before New Years to make us a threat to 3 peat. There are some really good teams out there waiting to knock us off the Title as Champions. Big teams with depth in their organization. I know I say this every year but I think injuries to our smaller players will have a major impact on us this year. The 2017 Penguins were not as good as the 2016 Penguins and there is no way this years 2018 Penguins are as good as 2017 Penguins at this point.
    So I am hoping for a trade to get that Big, 3rd line center and maybe another third line left winger to replace Kunitz.
    As you say , the dance is about to start again ..Let’s Go Pens !!

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      October 3, 2017 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Hey Jim,

      Good to hear from you! Interesting points, as always.

      Most everyone seems to feel we’ll need an upgrade at third-line center to have a legit shot. From the tiny bit I saw of Adam Johnson, I think he may be the answer down the road, but I don’t believe it’ll be this season.

      I kind of glossed over losing Kunitz, but you’re right. Even in decline, he brought a lot of intangibles to the table, and, man, did he ever come up big in the playoffs. A warrior, through and through.

      We’ve definitely got some holes to fill in order to have a legit shot at the Cup. The good news is, everyone else has significant holes, too, at least in the Metro. And, as you pointed out in one of your articles this summer, we still have Sid and Geno.

      GO PENS!

      Rick

      PS–As a side note, Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette seems to think Ryan Reaves will be a contributor this season. Hope he’s right.

      • the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
        October 3, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Hey Rick and Jim,

        Like you two, I believe that the Pens need an upgrade at 3rd line C. I like McKegg but to me he is a 4th line C. Again like you Rick, I think that Johnson could be the answer, if the Pens don’t make a move for Duchene or Athanasiou. However, I do think he could be the answer even this year if the Pens give him the chance. My biggest concern is that fear will strip the team of them giving more youth a shot. I fear that the pressure to win a 3-peat will cause them to slip back into the conservative mentality that led to years of futility between 2009 and our current run.

        I also think that barring the signing of Zaripov, Aston-Reese should be on the squad and filling in admirably for Kunitz. He won’t have Kunitz’s experience, but he will have the youth, the legs, and possibly more fearlessness (everyone loses some of that as they age) than Kunitz.

        I am also no fan of Hunwick and Pouliot. Injuries to D could really hurt this team if they try and rely on those two.

        And as Rick and I wrote below, I fear that Reaves, on the 4th line or any line is going to grind Sullivan’s Offensive attack to an MJ trickle.

        • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
          October 3, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

          Hey Other Rick,

          Aston-Reese certainly is a Kunitz-type player. There seems to be a concern about his skating, his first step in particular, but in the snippets I watched him play it didn’t seem too glaring.

          Guys like Bonino and Jussi Jokinen weren’t the fastest skaters, either, but they made up for it by reading the play well. Both had a knack for arriving at the right place at the right time, much like former Pens great and Hall-of-Famer Ron Francis. Hopefully, it’ll be that way for Aston-Reese.

          I tacked this on to my previous comment, but I’ll repeat it here. Jason Mackey of the PG seems to think Reaves will be a solid contributor. I hope he’s right.

          To me, the big guy looked out of sync and a step behind. Hopefully, as he gets more comfortable with the system, he’ll blend in better. We sure could use his muscle.

          I didn’t get to watch Hunwick play in preseason. Ironically, I did focus on him during last season’s Leafs-Caps playoff series and was surprised at how well he played. I’d always thought of him as a journeyman. Apparently, the Pens were impressed, too.

          I may be in the minority, but if Hunwick falters, I’m comfortable with Chad Ruhwedel as a No. 6 defenseman. And Jarred Tinordi, presently with the Baby Pens, skates really well for a big guy and provides some bite. I like Zach Trotman, too. So, all-in-all, I’m not too concerned with our ‘d’.

          Rick

          • the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
            October 3, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

            Hey Rick,

            I agree with you about Ruhwedel in that I think he can contribute. He is no Schultz or Letang, but from what I have seen of him, he is consistent. That is more than I can say about Hunwick, in the limited times I have seen him play. I have seen him hit opponents pretty hard but follow up the hit with poor puck management and I have yet to see him make any usable plays in the offensive zone. To drive a possession offense the Pens need D men that can hold the puck in.

            From what I saw of Tinordi , I would have kept him up and sent Hunwick down, even if I lost him in waivers.

            Who I like best for that 6th spot though is Bengtsson. I understand why the Pens may be a bit gun shy on using him. I disagree, but I understand.

            As for Reaves, as I wrote, as a person I like him, I just don’t see him benefiting the Pens. In fact, I see him hurting the team by taking up a roster spot that would be better given to a player who can help the team. It seems to me that the Pens are dangerously close to letting pride goeth before a fall; rather than admit a mistake, grasping at straws, they appear to try to justify their mistake. Like you I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think so.

            I hear you about Aston-Reese too, but as slow footed as he may appear with his first step at times, it really hasn’t seemed to hurt his over-all play. He seems to find the back of the net with some regularity and also to contributed in many other ways. In the prospect tournament, it wasn’t Aston-Reese that I saw unable to keep up with Sprong, but Bleuger and I don’t just mean speed, but over-all understanding of the game, giving and receiving passes and finding the high scoring percentage spaces on the ice. Konstantin Koltsov could flat out fly but never could seem to contribute in any truly appreciable way.

  3. Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
    October 2, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Hey all,

    A quickie update. I was pleased to hear that Jaromir Jagr signed a 1-year deal with Calgary. “Jags” can still play and, in the right environment, contribute. Wish it made sense for the Pens to sign him–it would’ve been great to see him return to the ‘Burgh to wrap up his career.

    The Blues, who also made Jagr an offer, signed Scottie Upshall, who played for them last year.

    On a sad note, Stars announcer Dave Strader passed away on Sunday following a courageous battle with cancer. Our prayers and condolences go out to his family.

    Also, our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the victims of that terrible mass shooting out in Las Vegas. This one hits close to home…I have a nephew who lives in Vegas. Thank goodness, he’s okay.

    Rick

  4. the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
    October 1, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Hey Rick,

    Thank you, I have been stressing about writing something for a preview to start a conversation, however, as confident as I am in the ability of the Pens on this current roster and Coach Sully on getting the job done and even being in a good position to 3-peat, I am not at all convinced that the 20 odd players that will make up the roster on Tuesday will represent the best, most talented roster that the Pens could assemble this year and I didn’t want my first article on the new regular season to contain any negativity. However, I feel no restraint in voicing my opinion as a reply once someone else starts the conversation. So, although I still think this team can get it done, here comes my rant (for those that are squeamish you can now tune me out).

    I am deeply concerned over Hornqvist’s not being ready to start the season. Judging from the video of Hornqvist just skating his edges and holding his stick with only one hand doesn’t fill me with any confidence is him being effective for quite some time, making me question the demotions of Sprong and Aston-Reese, both of whom exhibited great offensive skills. Combine that with the pathetic offensive effort yesterday, Murray is going to have to be a wall. also, although I really haven’t looked at the full schedule, but having read an article on the fantasy impact of the NHL schedule this year guiding people away from too many Penguins because the Pens play relatively few games down the stretch run when fantasy leagues run their playoffs would seem to indicate that the Pens really can’t wit until the end of the season to make up ground. They are going to need to hit the ice in full stride.

    Next, my rant from last year may be returning. I am talking about our defensemen and/or lack of them. As much as I thought Pouliot was going to be the man 3 or 4 years ago when I first saw him play, I have done a 180 on him. I haven’t seen the practices, but in the ice time I have seen of him, he still hasn’t shown the consistency needed to be a d-man on a Cup contender. Why was he given a NHL only contract? I can’t fathom that. Hunwick is also a severe disappointment for me. Yes, he had a pretty big hit yesterday, but his overall play has left me nonplussed. I am also wondering why Schultz and Cole haven’t been reunited. They were bread and butter last year, don’t screw that up. At this point, for my money, Bengtsson should really be given a shot.

    At center, barring a trade, the only in house center that could truly lead a three-headed monster line is Johnson, but he is in the minors also. I like McKegg and I like Rowney, but for me they are 4th line centers not 3rd. Although in a year or two I can help but wonder what Bellerive will look like.

    On the Wings, the Pens are fairly talented. It may be their deepest position; with the loss of Fleury, goalies have dropped a bit. However, to all of the Reaves fans out there, I am sorry, on the ice he still is unimpressive and a bit of side show attraction rather than a viable addition to the team, stealing a spot from someone who could actually contribute. From what I have seen of his videos and his interviews, I like him, he seems like a good team man as well as a PR man but his on ice contributions will be so minimal as to put undue pressure on Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel. If yesterday’s game is to be a barometer he will even provide any real fear in opponents. Dubinsky, unceremoniously dump Reaves with a hard body check. As I mentioned when they wasted a trade, NHL players are not given to fear. In fact, there is no doubt several young guns out there are already looking to dethrone him as the fight king and at least one pretty much capable of doing it. That is the nature of the beast.

    Now that I have ranted. I have been very impressed with Kuhnhackl, every time I have seen him. Unless the Pens sign Zapirov or bring up Aston-Reese, I would love to see what Kuhnhackl could do with quality ice time on Malkin’s wing. The work I saw him give on the PP early on in the preseason makes it easy for me to envision him buying tons of room for Malkin to skate as the big guy that he is will demand attention in front of the net. Combine that physicality with his skating ability, several times bursting around D-man to gain a lane he to the net.

    As you noted Rick, Crosby-Guentzel-Sheary seem to already be in mid season form. Do I see a new Century line developing? Can all three get up around the 100 point totals?

    I am also relieved to see Letang skating and darting about the ice. Hopefully they will find a complimentary pairing.

    Again, you mentioned Wilson. I have seen I little more offensive oomph from him this year, but I have also seen a couple of defensive irresponsibilities from him.

    Honestly I can think of a couple of good reasons why, even though I don’t think this is the best roster the Pens can put together, that this may be the best roster for the moment. Chief among those reason is that the architects of this roster has way more Stanley Cup rings than my zero but also, there are players on this roster that may not be the best players possible to be out there, but given the reality of injuries, players needing to clear waivers to go up and down, and that most of the players still on the roster would represent an asset that could be traded for future assets. In the end though, I don’t see the Pens 3-peating with the roster as it stands today. For them to 3-peat at least Sprong and Aston-Reese will play a fair role, and I would think Johnson or some outside third line center will too.

    Rant over, now all of you who have been tuning me out, you can tune back in.

    Drop the puck already, let’s go Pens!!!

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      October 2, 2017 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Hey Other Rick,

      Great thoughts and comments, as always.

      I really hope I’m wrong, and our Pens somehow manage to three-peat. But it’s such an enormous challenge…especially in the salary-cap era. So many things have to go right, and you have to have just the right mix of players and personalities. Alter it just a bit, and you no longer have the right ingredients.

      With all the defections, I fear that’s what’s happened to us. It kind of reminds me of the ‘90s. Even though we still had stars galore, we stopped winning Cups when guys like Phil Bourque, Bob Errey and Troy Loney left town. I see that same kind of shift in chemistry with the departures of Bonino, Cullen, Daley and Kunitz, to say nothing of Fleury. Character guys, all.

      While I like our organizational depth up front, we aren’t balanced, a flaw you pointed out on numerous occasions over the summer. We’re a little shy on left wing, a lot shy at center, and teeming with talent on right wing. Perhaps we move a right wing (or two) to fill other holes, but I don’t even want to suggest who since I like ‘em all.

      Agree with you about Pouliot. Unless something clicks with this kid, and soon, I think the Pens are better off parting ways, even if we don’t get much in return. I just don’t think he’ll ever be Sullivan’s type of player.

      I hate to admit it, but I’m also beginning to agree with you on the Reaves trade. As much as I like having a hammer in the lineup, from the little bit I’ve seen he’s had trouble keeping up, which basically renders a fourth line that’s already taken a hit with Cullen’s departure virtually useless.

      In some ways it reminds me of when we traded for Marty McSorley back in ’93 after getting cuffed around by the Islanders. Although I was initially thrilled to get a heavyweight like Marty, it soon became apparent that he didn’t skate well enough to fit in. We wound up trading him back to the Kings mid-season.

      Following an initial “honeymoon” period, I can see a scenario where Reaves only plays against the toughest of opponents. And if that happens…well…honestly, we would’ve been better off just sticking with Tom Sestito, who did a more-than-creditable job in those instances.

      I hope Reaves proves me wrong.

      A bright spot that I neglected to mention? I was really impressed with Adam Johnson. Tremendous speed, good instincts. I think he’s our third-line center down the road. I also like Jordy Bellerive.

      But for now …

      Rick

      • the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
        October 2, 2017 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        Hey Rick,

        As usual we pretty much agree down the line. At this point in time, although I like all the players on the this team, like you I don’t feel they are the right mix of players. However, let me say this, it is a long season and changes can and probably will be made.

        Like you wrote in your initial article, after repeating Cups, there may be more of a hangover than last year; Unlike Crosby, Guentzel, Sheary, and Malkin, several players seem to have gone through the motions in the preseason and it may be time to move them. That is also why I a really disappointed in not seeing at least one of the following on the roster right now; Sprong, Aston-Reese, or Johnson. I would think that if one or more of these kids were on the roster, they would turn the heat back up for some of the other players who may still be reveling in the Euphoria of two Cups.

        Another reason I would like to see one of those kids on the roster from beginning to the end of the season is that although I prefer team accolades over personal accomplishments, it would be nice to see a Pens player really have a chance to challenge for rookie of the year. Murray may challenge MAF as the best Pens goalie ever and just may go down in NHL history as one of the best goalies as well but with his brief stint 2 years ago and his being rotated through the season with MAF he was ever really considered. and Guentzel, despite his exploits last season he only played half a season, so really wasn’t eligible either. I would think that if Sprong would be given a chance, he just might challenge this year.

        Let’s hope that JR and Sullivan will readjust (Zapirov?) this line-up to keep it fresh and hungry!


            

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