123 days ago the Penguins lifted the Stanley Cup for the fourth time. Tonight begins their quest to repeat as champions and prove to the rest of the league that they mean business.
The season is not going to start the way most had hoped. Sidney Crosby was diagnosed with another concussion just a few days before the home opener and has been ruled out. The Penguins survived last season without much production from Crosby in the early stages under former Head Coach Mike Johnston. Evgeni Malkin always has stepped up his game whenever the captain missed time so look for Malkin to come out flying on Thursday night.
Let’s get right into the reasons:
- Not much change in the roster. Sure the Penguins may have lost Beau Bennett, Ben Lovejoy, and Jeff Zatkoff. However, the team already has suitable replacements for all three of these players. Ben Lovejoy’s departure may allow for Derrick Pouliot to see top-six minutes and this will be a make or break year for Pouliot since being drafted in 2012.
Beau Bennett could not stay healthy enough to crack the Penguins lineup. Also, a flurry of younger players joined the Penguins this year and made an immediate impact upon arrival. Jeff Zatkoff, AKA Mr. Game 1, was never going to have a shot in the goaltender rotation due to the fact that Matt Murray stepped up big in the playoffs and Marc-Andre Fleury was returning.
Other than these players, the roster is pretty much the same, we will still see the HBK line, Sid will probably still be flanked by Hornqvist and Sheary when he returns, and the Penguins will continue to have three (if not four) dangerous lines.
- Mike Sullivan. The head coaching change to Sullivan was the shot in the arm the Penguins needed behind the bench. Sullivan’s style was a complete change from Johnston’s system. Johnston wanted his defensemen to look for stretch passes through the neutral zone which did not work against teams with competent defensive forwards. Sullivan is all about north and south hockey. He wants the team to get out of their own zone as quickly as possible and burn the opponent with their speed and quick passes.
Mike Sullivan was criticized before becoming head coach. People noted his past head coaching experience as a reason he was going to fail, but he proved everyone wrong with the way he motivated and pushed this Penguins team to greatness.
- Younger players on the way. The addition of Sheary, Kuhnhackl and Rust to the team provided them with much needed speed. Quite frankly it provided them with the speed necessary to win it all. These players have found a home on their respective lines, but the Penguins have even more younger players about to crack the NHL. Daniel Sprong who many remember him from his stint with the Penguins the year after he was drafted. He might crack the NHL team full time this year once he returns from injury. He has the necessary speed and a deadly shot.
Jake Guentzel, who was drafted in 2013, recently signed an entry-level contract and will be another potential call up for the team. Last year Guentzel signed an AHL tryout and produced six points in 11 games. After that he went on to lead the team with 14 points in 10 playoff games. But the player that we will most likely see in the Penguins uniform again this year is Oskar Sundqvist. Sundqvist is only 22 and he will be looking to fill in for any potential injuries in the Penguins bottom six.
- Defense. Kris Letang stepped up in the playoffs, making a statement to the rest of the league that he is one of the top defenseman and should not be overlooked. Brian Dumoulin will be his partner to start the season, who also became a factor in the Penguins playoff run. Trevor Daley will be returning from his ankle injury to provide even more offensive firepower from the blue line. Olli Maatta had a few hiccups during the series against the Capitals but that is to be expected after taking a huge hit that resulted in Orpik being suspended for three games.
The bottom pairing of Ian Cole and Justin Schultz is your typical defense-minded defenseman and your offense-minded defenseman being paired together. Schultz shocked everybody when he came over in a trade from Edmonton and proceeded to produce and play like the defenseman everyone expected out of college.
- The HBK Line. The HBK line consisting of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel constantly gave opponents fits in the defensive zone. All three players are quick and each have their own niche in the line. Hagelin was the speedster that got in on defenders and made them cough up the puck. Bonino was the playmaker, often setting up the other two for scoring opportunities. Then there was Phil Kessel who the entire league knows as being a sniper and he showed just that in the playoffs. He posted 22 points in 24 games (10 goals and 12 assists). Phil Kessel is going to be hungry (no pun intended) for more. Look for the HBK line to continue to make other teams pull their better defensive pairings away from the top two lines. Hagelin, Bonino, and Kessel are going to demand attention from top pairings.
Say it with me, Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup Champion.