Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Will the Penguins Win Three Cups in a Row?
On June 11, at the conclusion of a 2-0 win in Game 6 of the final, the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup for the second time in as many years. It's a feat that hasn't occurred in the modern era of the NHL, since the salary cap was introduced. In fact, the last time that the double was accomplished was in 1998 by the Detroit Red Wings, which was one year before the Penguins' final opponents — the Nashville Predators — were instated in the NHL.
Furthermore, the Penguins were the first team to even return to the final for a successive season since the 2009 Penguins, who lost to the Red Wings in 2008, but then defeated them a year later. Even the much-hailed Chicago Blackhawks didn't manage to get to the final in consecutive years during their three-cup-wins-in-seven-seasons rampage.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are finally doing what many expected them to when they drafted Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal in successive years, respectively. Of course, Jordan Staal is no longer with this Stanley Cup-winning unit, but they managed to add top players to their elite core to form this dynastic unit.
Now Pittsburgh have the chance to do something that a team hasn't done since the '80s. In 1983, the New York Islanders won their third successive Stanley Cup under the management of the great Al Arbour, going on to win four in a row.
Given the manner of their win, especially this season, we examine if the Pittsburgh Penguins can achieve the triple, what stands in their way, and who else may contend for their crown.
Quite a Remarkable Win
In the Stanley Cup final, the Pittsburgh Penguins came in as the favorites mainly because they had been there and won it last season. However, if you compare them player-to-player, unit-to-unit, with the Nashville Predators — who were unfortunately without top centerman Ryan Johansen in the final — the winners don't come out on top.
Nashville's defense is most probably the best in the NHL, boasting Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Yannick Weber, and Matt Irwin. Then, it could also be argued that, once you remove the team's superstar forwards, Nashville boasts stronger and more productive depth than the Penguins. In goal, for the final, it was Pekka Rinne versus Matt Murray. Even though Murray is a grand talent, the head-to-head nod would go to Rinne who has a lot more experience and had arguably performed better to that stage.
Strictly man-to-man, Pittsburgh came into this final as the lesser team unit, and yet they pulled out a win. They were without star defenseman Kris Letang, so their defense also lacked that elite quality that Nashville had in droves.
Now, of course, it'll be Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who are remembered for this historic win, as they performed to elite levels throughout the playoffs. Young breakout star Jake Guentzel also proved his worth, as did Phil Kessel — once again — in the playoffs. Those four skaters round out the top four point scorers of the 2017 playoffs, which is an unbelievable feat for a team, but a necessary one, given the lack of elite talent on the blue line.
Lots of Change Coming to Pittsburgh
This offseason will mark an end of an era in Pittsburgh with Marc-Andre Fleury expected to be picked up by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Fleury has been a noble and elite servant of the club and was the first piece of the team's elite core, being drafted first overall in 2003.
What's particularly noble is the nature of Fleury's impending exit, as the star goaltender waived his no-movement clause to enable him to be exposed to the Golden Knights, and allow his team of 14 years to protect young goalie Matt Murray, who has usurped Fleury over the last year of play.
He hasn't officially left yet, but the Vegas Golden Knights would be fools to pass up on such an elite goaltender, so Fleury has already bid farewell to the team that drafted him:
After Fleury, the Penguins also have a slew of restricted and unrestricted free agents to deal with, many of which will be looking for more than their current, quite lowly deals. Restricted free agents Josh Archibald, Conor Sheary, Oskar Sundqvist, and Brian Dumoulin will most likely return, but Justin Schultz is a bit of a tricky one. Pittsburgh are extremely lucky to have Schultz as an RFA, but his demands will be at least double his current $1.4 million deal. But given his play this season, the very talented rearguard would be worth every cent, especially considering Kris Letang's regular injury concerns.
The unrestricted free agents are set to leave quite the hole in Pittsburgh's order. All of Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit, and Chad Ruhwedel might not be returning to the PPG Paints Arena for the start of next season.
A Lot of Depth Hitting the Free Agency
First off, Streit and Hainsey are 39 and 36-years-old, respectively, and were deadline day bolsters for a cup run, so they'll likely be allowed to walk.
Chad Ruhwedel was useful when called upon, but unless they can get him on a two-way deal, he'll likely walk. Trevor Daley has been a useful servant to the club, but at 33-years-old and potentially demanding a raise on his £3.3 million contract, he too could hit the free agency.
The forwards are more difficult to decide. Chris Kunitz has been with the team since 2008 and has provided veteran leadership — rocking the "A" this season — as well as clutch production. If they can fit in his salary, the Penguins should re-sign Kunitz.
Nick Bonino forged the heart of the infamous "HBK" line that terrorized the postseason, but he will be expecting an up in pay and could be a top-six center at some other NHL teams. Matt Cullen, now 40-years-old, has said that he would only want to play in Pittsburgh, so unless he signs a one-year deal, he may retire.
If all of these impending free agents do indeed depart, including the restricted free agents, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have an estimated $22,432, 500 in cap space to play with in the free agency. So, given that this year's free agency looks to be a strong one, the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions should have the draw to sign whomever they wish.
Can the Penguins Repeat, Again?
Naturally, the Pittsburgh Penguins are favorites to win the Stanley Cup in 2018, sitting as high as 8/1 with the sportsbooks compared by Oddschecker, making for a strong free bet choice. Fleury may be gone, but they still have the very talented — if not injury-prone — Matt Murray in net, along with the much-hyped Tristan Jarry promoted to backup.
Then, of course, there's also megastars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby to lead the charge with Phil Kessel and Justin Schultz in support, and hopefully, Kris Letang will be fit. The hope is that the team makes some more shrewd signings in the free agency to bolster their Cup-winning squad, having stuck with nearly the exact same team as in 2015/16 for the 2016/17 campaign.
However, they will once again face some fierce competition from the rest of the league. The NHL has developed into a wildly competitive league, with so many very well-rounded, elite teams checking into each other at the bottleneck that is the playoffs. The Washington Capitals will be looking to overcome their curse next season, having won the Presidents' Trophy two years running, but falling to the Penguins in the playoffs twice.
Outside of the Washington Capitals — who probably have the best all-around team in the league — there are also the ever-strong Chicago Blackhawks, who have maintained their Cup-winning core. The upstart Edmonton Oilers will only continue to improve with wunderkind Connor McDavid leading the way; Nashville are tipped to improve and make another run, given the strength of their existing team; and the New York Rangers will be in the running also.
To conclude, the Pittsburgh Penguins management will find a way to lure in great team players on shrewd deals and are undoubtedly the favorites to win the Stanley Cup once again in 2018, thus extending their dynasty.