COLUMN: This Season Feels Different

Somehow, we are less than a month away from the puck being dropped on the 2017-18′ season. I guess that’s what happens when you go to the Stanley Cup Finals and don’t spend two extra months watching other teams play like another Pennsylvania team does.

Every season has its headlines and it’s new waves of prospects being ready to embark upon their NHL rosters. Players depart from teams and head to greener pastures when their contracts expire. Some chase the shiny silver heavy trophy-like specimen that many call “The Stanley Cup”.

For the Penguins, the beginning of the 2015-16′ season felt like a new era. The Penguins had acquired Phil Kessel on July 1st in a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Penguins fans spent the better parts of July, August, and September painfully awaiting the chance to see number 81 fly around the ice in a Penguins sweater. They spent the early part of the season spiraling and it seemed by mid-December they were out of it. Mike Sullivan was hired and the rest is history. The WBS guys began filling roster spots. Fun, exciting, rejuvenating times for hockey in Pittsburgh.

Last season began with no doubts. The Penguins and fans felt invincible. With practically the same roster and one of the best coaches in the league currently, it seemed the Penguins were easily going to breeze through the league and repeat. Then Kris Letang had neck surgery and missed the rest of the season. There was goalie controversy. The Washington Capitals were the league’s best team. It seemed nothing could go the Penguins way…until it did. The Penguins repeated.

So bring on 2017-18′.

They’ve got Matt Murray as their new permanent starter. They’ve got Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese just a call away. They made some adjustments to a roster that couldn’t possibly maintain this playing style for a third straight potential run at a Stanley Cup. Letang is back and cleared to participate in hockey again. They don’t even have a third-line center. And, yet, this still feels like the first time…even though it doesn’t.

I sit here and think about how it’s even fathomable to think that Matt Hunwick, Ryan Reaves, and Antti Niemi are supposed to replace guys like Marc-Andre Fleury, Trevor Daley, Chris Kunitz and Nick Bonino. Then I counter that with the fact that Letang, one of the biggest reasons the Penguins won the Cup the first time around, is back and refreshed and ready to anchor the Penguins’ defense even after they won the Cup without him last season.

I sit and think how Fleury, a Pittsburgh idol for years, has transitioned into life on the West Coast with the Vegas Golden Knights. Then I counter that with how Murray might be just that much better, even without the shining-bright personality. He’ll let his play speak and not his smile.

I ponder how the Penguins are going to get by without a legitimate third line center to start the season. Then I remember that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby played some of the best hockey we’ve ever seen from them simultaneously over the past two seasons and instantly forget the third line center “problem”.

Let’s face it. There aren’t many holes with this team. Yes, the third line center issue might worry you. But, when has Jim Rutherford ever given you reason to doubt that he will fill that void?

The Penguins can get by early in the year with a rotation of their bottom two centers, whomever they choose to fill such roles. The market is too high right now to buy. The Penguins will hold a playoff spot all year. They can buy when teams are really trying to unload players mid-season and at the trade deadline.

There is a reason this season feels a bit different. In recent years, you couldn’t say that you guaranteed the Penguins would make the Finals, let alone win them. I still don’t think that’s the case. The roster does look a bit weaker.

Just remember, Sullivan has yet to lose a playoff series. He’s a smart coach who knows how to use his players. If you don’t produce, you don’t play. He’ll find a role player that does exactly what he wants.

The biggest reason this season feels different, though, is because of the business-like approach they’re going to have.

There are some players on this current team who have things to prove. That’s usually when the best comes out of them.

Carl Hagelin had one of the more disappointing seasons on the team last year. He scored the Cup clinching goal, but it was only one of two points he scored in the entire playoffs.

Conor Sheary, a 20-goal scorer last season, signed a three-year extension with the team at $3 million per year. Many people scrutinized this move as he’s been benched at some point in the playoffs the past two seasons.

Brian Dumoulin, also signed to a long-term extension this offseason, wants to prove that he isn’t just good when Letang is his defense partner and that he’s worth the money he’ll be getting paid.

Justin Schultz, the final long-term contract signee, wants to show he wasn’t a one-hit wonder and has truthfully resurrected what Edmonton almost ruined.

Derrick Pouliot, a former first round draft choice, has yet to put together a solid resume in the NHL. He plays fantastic in the AHL and looks like a dumpster fire when given NHL minutes.

Reaves, a perceived tough-guy, wants to disprove that notion and show that he was worth the first round pick and Oskar Sundqvist that was given to St. Louis in exchange for his services.

Murray wants to prove that he can handle a season’s worth of workload. Many have said that his success is only because he’s kept fresh for when it really counts.

Crosby and Malkin want to assure their legacy and prove they’re the best duo in the modern-day NHL.

The list could go on and on.

When there is competition or a chance to prove yourself to people, it usually brings out the best in that individual or team. I don’t think there is a scary team in the Eastern Conference than Pittsburgh. The Western Conference always has a few teams.

You may say there isn’t much left to prove when you’ve won two straight championships and the target is on your back. Ask these Penguins if there isn’t something to prove.

Incase you are unaware, the Flyers will no longer have a team on the Stanley Cup if they don’t win this upcoming season as a new ring will need to be placed on the Cup following the year. There would be no better way to knock the Flyers off of the Stanley Cup than to put the Pittsburgh Penguins’ name on there for a third straight time.

Damn, it’s been a long time since 1975.

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