Over the next couple of months, The Hockey Writers will be releasing a series of bold predictions. Team by team, this series will take shape as we look at some of the more questionable possibilities that could come into fruition during the 2017-18 season.
From lottery picks in Philadelphia to Stanley Cup champions in Pittsburgh, many already have the Penguins atop their lists to return to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017-18. And with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, who wouldn’t see them as favourites for the three-peat?
One spot behind their division rival Washington Capitals, the Penguins finished 2016-17 second in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference with 111 points – thanks to their 50-win season. Their plus-48 goal differential was the third highest in the conference behind the Capitals and Blue Jackets, but they scored the most goals of any other NHL team last season (282).
Led by their three superstars, Crosby finished atop the team’s scoring list with 44 goals and 89 points. He finished tied for second in league scoring with Patrick Kane and 11 points behind the leader – Connor McDavid.
Malkin (72) and Kessel (70) filled out the top three for the Penguins with Justin Schultz leading the way from the blue line with a 51-point season.
Heck, even the young guys contributed for the Penguins. Jake Guentzel netted 16 goals and 33 points, while Scott Wilson totalled 26 points in 78 games.
In net, they split time between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray shouldered the majority of the work with a 32-10-4 record in 49 games, while Fleury held a 18-10-7 record in 38 games of his own.
Murray posted the better numbers with a 2.41 goals against and .923 save percentage compared to Fleury’s 3.02 average and .909 save percentage, but when it came to the postseason it was Fleury that carried the team most of the way.
Fleury played 15 games for the Penguins in the postseason with a 9-6 record before handing the responsibilities back to Murray for the final. Murray ran with it to help the Penguins to their second straight Stanley Cup – and the first for long-time veteran Ron Hainsey.
But with every success comes change and while the Penguins would’ve loved to keep their winning team together, the 2017 offseason won’t end without some faces and names changing within the dressing room.
The Penguins Not-So-Flowery Future
A lot has been said regarding the Pens’ need to protect their star players. The team addressed that need in late June when they traded for Ryan Reaves – one of the last remaining enforcers in the league.
But that wasn’t their biggest acquisition of the offseason. Sure, they re-signed Schultz, Pouliot and Dumoulin. They even brought in veteran Matt Hunwick. But their signing of goaltender Antti Niemi to a one-year deal, worth $700,000, filled a hole that was left when the Vegas Golden Knights took Fleury as their expansion pick from the Penguins.
Now, we all knew that one of their goalies would have to be exposed in the Expansion Draft and it wasn’t going to be Murray. So, the Pens gave the Knights a second-round pick in 2020 to make sure they took the 32-year-old off their hands.
In doing so, the Knights took on the remaining two years of Fleury contract and the Penguins escaped without having to pay the remaining $11.5 million over the next two seasons.
But whether it’s the changes in the room or simply a Stanley Cup hangover, the Penguins might not be the favourite to repeat as Cup champs.
2017-18 Bold Prediction: A Cold, Arctic Hangover
This may be the toughest of the predictions to write. I’ve always talked about how teams experience some kind of Stanley Cup hangover and still the Penguins defied that belief in going back-to-back the past two seasons.
So what makes this year different?
Well, the amount of hockey played by Malkin and Crosby over the past two calendar years is exponential. Murray is now the legitimate full-time starter and will likely have to play 60 to 65 games for the Penguins this coming season and if he can’t go is Niemi the type of goaltender that can play to the level of the departed Fleury?
While Hainsey wasn’t a major asset, Hunwick is a step down. And on the bench, the team also lost one of their assistants in Rick Tocchet.
Maybe it’s time to start thinking that the Penguins are set to cool down. While a three-peat would be more than impressive – with dynasty discussion following that up – injuries and fatigue could finally play a factor in slowing down one of the hottest teams over the past few seasons. It’s because of these factors that – while I do expect them to make the playoffs – I don’t expect the Penguins to make it out of the first round in 2017-18.