Fresh off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins look to become the first NHL team since the New York Islanders in 1982 to win three consecutive cups. A quick glance at the Penguins roster reveals that most of the major role players from the team’s last two championship campaigns are still in place for the team to make a run at history. There are, of course, the usual suspects in superstar forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel; the three of whom combined for a dazzling 231 points spread across the Penguins top two lines last season and will continue to be a force for years to come. Following them is Pittsburgh’s now undisputed #1 goaltender Matt Murray, along with defensemen Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, and Ian Cole. Considering that all of the marquee names listed above are either age 30 or below, there is no doubt as to how competitive the team will continue to be for a number of years.
Looking beyond the team’s featured players, the rest of the Penguins’ current roster features several players who look to make strong contributions to the team’s push for a 3rd consecutive Stanley Cup. Among the team’s most talented young forwards are Conor Sheary, who enjoyed a breakout campaign last season with 53 points in 61 games, and Jake Guentzel, who made a strong first impression in the NHL with 33 points in 40 games. The 21 year old Guentzel in particular, has left observers wondering how much more he may still progress in his development curve after posting an additional 13 goals and 25 points in 21 playoff games as a rookie. Rounding out the team’s returning depth forwards are established Swedish veterans and 2016-17 Cup Finals Game 6 goal scorers Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin, along with clutch goal scorer and two-way presence Bryan Rust.
It is after the Penguins’ second tier of young forwards where questions about the team’s roster in the 2017-18 season begin to arise. At forward, the team lost depth Center Nick Bonino to the Stanley Cup runner-up Nashville Predators via free agency. Furthermore, the status of Matt Cullen is still currently unknown as the highly regarded 38 year old Center remains unsigned while contemplating possible retirement. While both players are not particularly known for their offense (despite each player finishing with 30+ points in the last two regular seasons), their work on the Penalty Kill was absolutely instrumental in the Penguins’ playoff success during the last two seasons. Perhaps more notable is the offseason departure of longtime veteran, fan favorite, and 4x Stanley Cup champion Chris Kunitz to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kunitz holds a unique distinction in that he is one of only a handful of players present on the last three Penguins cup winning teams from 2008-09 to 2016-17. Furthermore, his 76 points in 126 playoff games as a Penguin ranks him 10th among all NHL players in that same time span. Barring the possible return of Cullen, it is clear that the Penguins will most definitely miss the presence of all three forwards and the enormous contributions that they brought to the team on a nightly basis.
On defense, the Penguins’ situation does not appear to be quite as uncertain. The team will undoubtedly miss departing veteran defensemen Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey, who contributed heavily in increased playoff roles amidst injuries to several other rearguards. However, along with the aforementioned Letang, Schultz, and Cole, the Penguins will be returning starting defensemen Olli Maatta and Brian Doumoulin. Though considered by some observers to be inferior options, both Maatta and Doumoulin combined for a +74 plus-minus rating in the last two regular and postseasons combined and should be able to handle any increased responsibilities that may come their way. The Penguins also added veteran free agent defenseman Matt Hunwick and will look to the 32 year old to add his own brand of veteran stability following stints with the Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
A last point of player personnel change to consider is the departure of long-time franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft. The former 1st overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft holds many of the Pittsburgh Penguins career goaltending records, including most games played (691), wins (375), and shutouts (44). Though Matt Murray’s status as the Penguins goaltender of the present and future is solidified, the team will now look to free agent acquisition and former Stanley Cup champion goalie Antti Niemi to provide solid net-minding as the team’s backup.
In total, Niemi’s numbers shown above indicate that he is comparable to Fleury in terms of a good ratio of games played to wins, as well as a similar amount of shutouts. Both goalies have likely benefited at least some from playing on strong teams throughout their careers, but it’s important to note that Niemi will be looking to bounce back from a very pedestrian season with Dallas that saw the Finland native’s numbers fall well below his established career averages. Though his struggles may have been due to playing behind a very underachieving group of defensemen in Dallas, Niemi will get another chance behind a solid group in Pittsburgh and his performance will most definitely be a factor in the team’s hope for continued success.
Overall, a case can be made both in favor of and against the chances of the Pittsburgh Penguins winning a 3rd consecutive Stanley Cup in the 2017-18 NHL season. A final interesting point of reference, comparison, and possibly irony lies in the same Penguins franchise some 25 years ago. Heading into the 1992-93 NHL season, the Penguins had just come off back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in the previous two seasons and were led by Mario Lemieux; arguably the greatest player and team captain in NHL history. The rest of the team’s core would include a group of talented and young players including Jaromir Jagr, Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, and Tom Barrasso among others. Despite a staggering amount of talent on their roster, the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins would fall to the New York Islanders in a stunning 2nd round Game 7 playoff upset and see their chances for a three-peat erupt in flames.
Where the irony of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ current situation lies is in the similarly staggering amount of top-end talent on the team’s current roster. Indeed, the presence of 3x Stanley Cup champion and team captain Sidney Crosby, long considered by many to be the best player of the current NHL generation, along with the aforementioned Malkin, Kessel, Letang, Schultz, and Murray draws many comparisons to Lemieux and the 1992-93 edition of the Penguins. Despite some uncertainty in the team’s depth roles, the only question remaining of the 2017-18 Penguins is if they can defy the odds and will themselves to accomplish something that the legendary group from 25 years ago maybe should have, but never managed to achieve, in winning three consecutive Stanley Cup championships.