The Penguins are Stanley Cup Champions. With stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel on a team, it’s easy to imagine a team being so successful. Earlier in the season, though, they weren’t. This Penguins team was flat. They played boring hockey and fans called for the team to blow up the core. The jump from 12th in the division to Stanley Cup Champs is all in thanks to the guys that weren’t here through most of the struggle, but in turn, brought the greatest reward.
On December 12th, the Penguins needed a shakeup. Mike Johnston implemented a system in Pittsburgh that the players just simply wouldn’t buy into. The Penguins were boring. Sidney Crosby had one of his worst offensive seasons as Johnston turned him into a defensive type of player. Johnston was relieved of his coaching duties and Mike Sullivan was brought in. A former coach of the Bruins and assistant to John Tortorella, Sullivan remodeled the Penguins. A sport like hockey is emotionally driven. There’s no doubt about it. What Mike Sullivan did, though, was has the players show emotion in other ways. This team was disciplined. When Joe Thornton slashed Sidney Crosby, what did Crosby do? Nothing. He just played. That’s what Sullivan preached and that’s what the Penguins did. The just played. And finally, they won.
Playing a couple games and even scoring a goal last season, Bryan Rust was, arguably, the Penguins best rookie. Bringing speed and tenacity into this line up, as well as another Penguins rookie forward, finally gave the Penguins depth again. For so many years this team was filled with clogs and tough guys meant to toughen up the bottom six. Guys like Tanner Glass, Arron Asham, Craig Adams, and Max Lapierre failed to bring the Penguins any reliable bottom six scoring. Rust did just that and eventually found himself paired with Evgeni Malkin. Rust was the game seven hero against Tampa Bay and had a goal the finals. He’ll be a great piece of the puzzle for years to come.
Playing in college last season, nobody ever expected the impact Conor Sheary would have on the Penguins. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He had no NHL experience. He was too small and not skilled enough. Yet, somehow, he scored two goals in the Stanley Cup Finals. He’s a cup champion. He played on a line with Conn Smythe winner Sidney Crosby. Conor Sheary had one hell of a year and brought the Penguins the speed they’ve been looking for. Sheary is gonna be a great winger for Sidney Crosby going forward and he will definitely be a Penguin for the future.
A player that many of us, myself included, didn’t think was a legit prospect was Tom Kuhnhackl. Sheary and Rust showed glimpses of hope and promise. Tommy K, though, never really did. He didn’t score the big goals or made the big plays. He wasn’t as fast or talented as the others. But this Penguins team had so much trust in him, and in turn, he was a reliable fourth line forward. Under the guidance of Matt Cullen, the line of Kuhnhackl, Cullen, and Fehr enables the Penguins to roll with four consistent lines. In heavy pressure situations, the KFC line was often called into play. The line had, defensively, the same kind of chemistry that the HBK line had offensively. Who knows what the future will bring for Tom Kuhnhackl. With the sound defensive play he displayed this postseason, though, hopefully he’s here to stay.
Last offseason, the Penguins were missing almost their entire top four defense. Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, and Christian Ehrhoff were all injured. While players like Taylor Chorney and Scott Harrington were called upon, the most impressive of the defensive call ups was Brian Dumoulin. Just how much did this Penguins team trust him? Chorney was let go in free agency and the team shipped Harrington to Toronto. His team knew Dumoulin was legit, and in return, “Dumo” was perhaps the Penguins best defensive defenseman. Brian made a great pair with pretty much any other defenseman thrown at him and played consistent hockey throughout the year. He scored a Powerplay goal in game six against San Jose and was also a key part of the penalty kill. Dumoulin is a key part to the Penguins top four defense and the best return from the Jordan Staal trade. He will be a Penguin for a long time to come.
A player many of us forget about is Scott Wilson. Scoring goals in three consecutive games, Wilson helped the Penguins get over a huge mid season crunch. With many of the Penguins top six injured, Wilson scored some huge goals to win the Penguins three key games. Wilson suffered a broken foot and missed the remainder of the season, but he shouldn’t be forgotten for what he did for the Penguins. With his wicked shoot and great speed, look for him to make the Penguins bottom six next year.
Somebody that I thought should’ve made the team last season was Oskar Sundqvist. This was at a time when the Penguins had near to no offensive depth. Oskar has great speed and scored his first career goal against the New York Islanders this year. Sundqvist didn’t play much in the playoffs, but he should be the future fourth line center of the team for years to come.
A future piece of the top six, Daniel Sprong inspired many of us early this season. Bringing speed into a boring Penguins team, Sprong will look great under the new Mike Sullivan system. The Penguins decided to return Sprong to juniors after Johnston was fired, but this is just the beginning for Sprong. He should’ve been a first round pick and was a great steal for the Penguins. Look for him to make the top six within the next couple years.
A guy that shocked us all, Matt Murray is the team’s starting goalie. Tying rookie records in the playoffs, Matt Murray brought his team to a Stanley Cup at only 22 years old. I love Marc-Andre Fleury. I’ve supported him all these years and will be devastated to see him go. But Matt Murray is the future and the future is very bright for him. There are some weaknesses in his game and goaltender coach Mike Bales will work with Murray to perfect those. Regardless of all of this, Matt Murray will be the Penguins netminder for years to come. Let’s see what other hardware he can bring home.
Other impressive Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players: Dominik Simon, Josh Archibald, Carter Rowney