Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-2018, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers are insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around till the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-2018 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on the Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins
Last season was another tremendous season for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they won their second Stanley Cup championship in a row and were the first team to go back-to-back in the salary cap era. It had been 20 years since we saw a team repeat before the Penguins did it. The Penguins racked up 50 wins and 111 points which was good for second place in the Metropolitan Division behind the Washington Capitals.
During the regular season, captain Sidney Crosby put on a show as he won the Rocket Richard trophy for most goals in a season with 44 and also put up 89 points. His 89 points were second to Connor McDavid who got over 100 and won the Hart. Evgeni Malkin also had a great season with 33 goals and 72 points and Phil Kessel was in the 70 point club as well with 23 goals and 47 assists. There was also the emergence of rookie Jake Guentzel. He ended up playing 40 games and had 16 goals, one of them on his very first shot, and 33 points to end the season.
Pittsburgh’s goaltending was almost split down the middle if you look at it after the season as Matt Murray started 47 games but that had to do with him getting hurt during the World Cup of Hockey. Marc-Andre Fleury got the starting job for the first few weeks of the season. As the season went along it became obvious that Matt Murray was Mike Sullivan’s guy. Murray had a .923 save percentage and a 2.41 goals-against average. Fleury struggled a bit during the season but had a strong finish to close the season out. Overall, he had a .909 save percentage with a goals-against average just over 3.
The Penguins offseason started out a bit emotionally for some of the players and the fans as Fleury was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. He spent his career in Pittsburgh since 2003 as the franchise goaltender. Pittsburgh also lost some of their forwards from last year that really helped them win their second Stanley Cup championship in a row. When a team spends up to the cap like the Penguins, they can’t afford to make mistakes with these middle tier contracts and they made the right move by not signing any of their players back.
Nick Bonino, who was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks a couple seasons ago, signed with the Nashville Predators; Pittsburgh wasn’t coming close to matching Nashville’s offer. Trevor Daley, who they also acquired a couple years ago, signed with the Detroit Red Wings. Chris Kunitz, who had been with the Penguins since 2008-2009, signed a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning which seemed to shock some people as they thought he was going to sign back. Other free agents who left were Matt Cullen, Ron Hainsey, and Mark Streit.
Pittsburgh went out and traded for Ryan Reaves from the St. Louis Blues during the NHL Draft as they felt they needed more muscle on their fourth line going into this season. They also signed Antti Niemi from the Dallas Stars to a one-year deal to backup Murray this season. Niemi had been dreadful in Dallas the past few seasons but they’re hoping he can come in and play not as many games and have a fresh start. After Daley left on July 1st, they went out and got his replacement in Matt Hunwick from Toronto. Hunwick had 19 points last year and figures to be on the bottom pairing which is a perfect spot for him.
2017-2018 Projected Line Combinations
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Conor Sheary
Bryan Rust-Evgeni Malkin-Phil Kessel
The top two lines should be set in stone going into the season as the top line was used throughout the second half of the season and was fantastic, as was the Malkin line. They may swap Rust with Hagelin for stretches, which makes sense because they’ll have a fully healthy Hagelin at their disposal this year. Last year Hagelin battled a foot injury which hindered him from March all the way through the playoffs.
The bottom six is where it’s going to get interesting for the Penguins. They still don’t have an answer for the third line center position. Adam Johnson seems like a candidate to be the third line center as he’s had an impressive training camp. Greg McKegg may also be a candidate for the position as well. The two swedes in Hagelin and Hornqvist played a lot together last season so that seems likely to happen regardless of who the center is.
For the fourth line, Rowney will have that job as the coaching staff trusted him in the playoffs last year to play him nightly despite Cullen being the center. He’ll make the transition to center this year and have Reaves on one side and Wilson on the other. Other candidates could include Tom Kuhnhackl or potentially Daniel Sprong if he doesn’t get sent to Wilkes-Barre Scranton to start the year.
Olli Maatta-Matt Hunwick
The Penguins will have the services of their number one defenseman Kris Letang back this season as he missed the last 41 games of the regular season and playoffs with a herniated disk in his back. He’s 100% healthy and ready to have a big impact season paired up next to Brian Dumoulin. Him and Dumoulin make a great top pair as they’ve played with each other the past couple seasons and have been a good compliment to one another.
Another pairing that has played a ton together these past couple seasons has been the Cole-Schultz pairing. They’ve been the best pairing at times for the Penguins and Schultz really came into his own last year as he had 12 goals and 51 points. He also had a top 10 finish in the Norris voting. Cole isn’t nearly as good offensively but he’s one of the Penguins best penalty killers and is good defensively.
On the bottom pairing, we have Hunwick with Maatta and it’ll be interesting to see how that pairing works out. Maatta struggled last year with his speed as he looked a tad slow in his own zone defensively. He’s battled some harsh injuries the past couple years but was fully healthy this offseason so we’ll see if he can get some of the speed back that he had from his rookie year when he was outstanding next to Matt Niskanen. Hunwick fits just right in a bottom pairing role as he had 19 points last season with the Leafs and is also a great skater. He’s 32 and even though the Penguins have him until he’s 35, he shouldn’t fall off that hard such as Rob Scuderi did when the Penguins signed him a few years back.
Murray will be the starter this season and backing him up will be Antti Niemi who’s hoping that a fresh start can net him a potentially better contract as it’s only a one year deal for him.
Players to watch
It may seem odd that he’s here but this will be Murray’s first full season as the Penguins netminder and it’ll be interesting to see how he plays over a full season.
He’s also battled a couple injuries throughout his career. If he doesn’t get hurt this season, we could be looking at potentially a dark horse for the Vezina trophy. His .937 save percentage in the playoffs and 1.70 goals-against average is remarkable considering he just came back from a really big hamstring injury that made him unavailable for the first two rounds. He looked like his old self and there’s no reason to believe he can’t close to that level for a full season though it would seem unlikely his save percentage .937 for a full year.
This one’s pretty obvious as all eyes are going to be on how this kid will do over a full season. In 40 games for the Penguins last year, he had 16 goals and 33 points. He was also outstanding in the playoffs. He had 13 goals and 21 points and was considered a dark horse for the Conn Smythe trophy. His 13 goals led all Penguins in the playoffs and is second all-time for goals scored in the playoffs by a rookie. Only Dino Ciccarelli has more with 14. He’ll likely be playing next to Crosby for much of the season and he could be in line for a huge sophomore season.
Players on the rise
Rust had another terrific season for the Penguins and has solidifed himself as a top six winger on the team. He had 15 goals and 28 points last year but only played 57 games because of injuries. In the playoffs, he had seven goals and nine points en route to his second championship.
He’ll likely be playing again this season with Evgeni Malkin and if he has a fully healthy season, there’s no reason to think he can’t score between 20-25 goals and get 45-50 points. He’s also one of the Penguins best players in elimination games as he has goals against the Lightning, Blue Jackets, and set up the game-winning goal in game seven against the Washington Capitals.
Schultz is coming off the best season of his career and earned himself a nice payday from the Penguins this summer. He signed a three year deal with an AAV of $5.5M. He’s thrived with the Penguins ever since they gave up a third round pick to get him out of Edmonton.
He’s going to get more top four minutes this year as he was able to carry the load last year with Letang out for most of the second half of the season and the playoffs. His 51.2 CF% was the best of his career and his 5V5 points per 60 of 1.92 was also a career best. It’s not known yet who will quarterback the top power play but nevertheless, Schultz is on track for another big season and will be up to the challenge.
Players on the decline
A lot of the Penguins players who would fit in this category left over the summer but Maatta has been in decline for a couple seasons now. His health has had a big part to do with it but he still looked a step slow last season. His 5v5 points per 60 of 0.42 was a career low for him last year and he also only had seven points last year. Even when he came back from his injury, he again looked a step slow.
This season will be big for Maatta as he had a fully healthy offseason but if he continues to not play well despite being fully healthy, he could potentially find himself in the press box.
2017-18 Season Prediction
This team is still projected to be one of the best teams in hockey and they’ll be a Stanley Cup contender again next season. When you have Crosby and Malkin healthy, you have as good of a chance as anyone to win. This team is going to score a bunch just like it did last season and the backend should be much better with Kris Letang back leading it.
Pittsburgh will be pushing to win the Metropolitan division again this season but even if they don’t, they’ll still be one of the favorites to three-peat next season and be the first team to do that since the New York Islanders from the 1980’s.
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