All posts by calemillig

Penguins Need Schultz to Fulfill an Important Role

Last season, Justin Schultz wasn’t too high on himself. 

The former college hockey standout with the Wisconsin Badgers was having the worst season of his career with a very upset Oilers franchise. Garnering high expectations ever since his inception with the Oilers, Justin was simply not living up to be the potential Norris-winning defenseman that the team envisioned him to become. Fed up with the slumping defenseman, who had only 10 points in 45 games, the Oilers shipped the failed Schultz to Pittsburgh for a mere third-round pick. 

Without the pressure of playing top minutes and being the top defenseman, Schultz slid into a bottom-pairing defensive role for the Penguins. With Trevor Daley getting hurt in the Eastern Conference Finals, Schultz replaced the veteran defenseman enroute to the team winning their fourth Stanley Cup.

A Comeback Season to Remember

After testing the free agency water, Schultz finally decided to resign with the Penguins for one year at $1.4 million. The contract, at the time, seemed fair for both sides; however, the Penguins are the ones benefitting from that contract now.

Schultz has been absolutely terrific for the Penguins. Pairing up with Ian Cole, the former Badger finally had a breakthrough season. Schultz recorded 12 goals and 51 points in 78 games this regular season with the Penguins, which was good for 7th among NHL defenseman this season. Schultz also found his overall game to be enhanced, and with credit to Penguins defensive development coach and former player Sergei Gonchar, the 26 year old defenseman has become much better at playing away from the puck.

Meriting mention of an all-star appearance, Schultz made a complete turnaround from last season. With his improved play, Schultz has seen an increased role with the Penguins. With Kris Letang set to miss the entire playoffs, however, Schultz is going to have to fulfill a much-needed role for the Penguins.

The Hero They Need

Kris Letang will never be replaced. Earning Norris Trophy (best defenseman) and Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) consideration at the fruition of last season, Letang was crucial to the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup. Even though Letang is gone, however, Schultz can help with one role that Letang played.

What the Penguins have missed the most from Letang is his ability to lead the rush, practically by himself. With generational talents like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing together, this team needs players that can get the puck up the ice to them. Out of all of the defenseman the Penguins

What the Penguins need from Schultz is what he’s done so far in Letang’s absence: lead the rush. Cole has complemented Schultz very well this season and has been his pseudo-defensive backbone; giving Schultz more freedom to join the rush. With Cole behind him as a defensive backup, Schultz has found himself deeper in the offensive zone and has since an elevation in scoring because of it.

Schultz has shown this year that not only is he gifted offensively, but he is decent at playing away from the puck as well. Schultz isn’t going to be the team’s shutdown defenseman. There are other guys that can do that, such as Cole, Brian Dumoulin, and Ron Hainsey.

Finding Faith in the Former Badger

Kris Letang played 41 games; missing exactly half of the Penguins regular season. In his absence, Just Schultz has propelled himself into a top role. Quarterbacking the team’s top power play, Schultz has already shown his value to the Penguins. 

If Schultz can lead the rush and help develop scoring chances, the single thing that Kris Letang did best, then the Penguins will score more goals. Period. The Penguins don’t need Schultz to play like the Norris Trophy defenseman the Oilers thought they had. The team simply needs the former Badger to lead the rush and provide scoring chances.

Schultz was once considered to be a failure. After only a few months of being a Penguin, he turned into a Stanley Cup champion. If he wants to remain a champion for another year, then he will need to be the player that his team needs. He won’t be Kris Letang, but he can still provide a much-needed role for this team.


This Penguins Team is Much, Much Different

The second-most difficult task in professional sports is winning a championship.

There’s many difficult layers and aspects to winning the highly desired prize, and many professional sports franchises are never able to call themselves the cream of the crop, or simply, the best of the world. While many will believe that winning a championship is the most daunting and difficult task for a club to achieve, many underestimate that there is something even more difficult for a team to accomplish: winning multiple championships.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last year, we all know this. I don’t need to say anymore about that. What I can say, however, is how this team is different. Yes, I understand that the turnover isn’t much different than last years team. As a matter of fact, Ben Lovejoy, Beau Bennett, and Eric Fehr are the only three that have departed since then. Regardless of personnel, this team is still different.

The “HBK” line is almost non-existent. During last years playoff run, the trio of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel was the most dominant line of the playoffs. This year, the line struggled to play like their former selves. Bonino has seen his play elevate in the past month, but Kessel isn’t performing like he should. Kessel, who dominated last year’s playoffs with 10 goals and 22 points in 24 games. This year, Kessel has managed to score 22 goals and 67 points in 79 games which is fair, but he has struggled as of late to put the puck in the back of the net.

Hagelin has been out of commission due to an injury and may not even see play in the first round against Columbus. Taking the role as the speedy left winger, Bryan Rust has slotted next to Bonino and Kessel and this new line has been playing decent hockey. Hagelin, when he returns, will most likely play with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist.

Kris Letang will miss the entire playoffs. Ouch. The undisputed best defenseman on the Penguins roster, and arguably the team’s most important player, will not be able to assist the injury-riddled Penguins win another Stanley Cup. Many have argued that the Penguins would not have won the Stanley Cup last year without Letang. Losing Letang was tough, there’s no doubt about it. Without Letang, it is going to be very difficult to win the Stanley Cup.

On the other side, this team is very different from last year (in a positive way). Jake Guentzel surprised everyone and showed how deep the Penguins prospect pool really is. Guentzel has scored 15 goals this season and has helped form one of the best lines in hockey. Did I mention that Guentzel, who was playing College hockey last year, plays next to Sidney Crosby? Who would’ve thought a college player could play on a wing with Sidney Crosby?

Even worse, who would’ve thought that both of Crosby’s wingers were college players. Conor Sheary is slowly turning into an elite player. He has developed and progressed remarkably last year, and this is a player who scored two goals in the Stanley Cup Finals. With 23 goals this year, Sheary has defied the odds and has turned out to be a true gem for the Penguins.

“Sid and the Kids” is this years “HBK.” The team has needed a line to be hot and they got one. If the Penguins hope to win the cup again, “Sid and the Kids” is going to have to guide them there.

As I mentioned before, Letang isn’t going to play in the playoffs. While the loss is devastating, there is somebody that could possibly take his place. Justin Schultz has been tremendous for the Penguins this season. Absolutely tremendous. Who would’ve thought this guy was only traded for a third round pick? I’m not going to talk too much about Schultz as there’s a future story coming up.

The Penguins also added veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit at the trade deadline, and with Letang now out of commission, these trades are even more valuable now. Chad Ruhwedel has played fairly well for the Penguins, and if another injury occurs, Ruhwedel may very well make the playoff roster.

The Penguins final regular season game and first playoff games may have very different rosters. The games are only a few days apart, but the impact of the two are substantially different. If the Penguins have home ice in the first round by Game 82, I would expect several players to be sitting the game out. Olli Maatta, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Hagelin, and Tom Sestito are all currently out with injury. I’m expecting Maatta and Malkin to be ready to go by Game 1, but Kunitz and Hagelin may be out a little bit longer (I doubt Sestito sees playoff time).

Regardless of the team’s low turnover rate, this team is much different than last years. Injuries have plagued the team, some younger players have stepped up, and line combinations have been changed. This team is a great team, one of the best in Penguins history. What the deciding factor on how great this team will be, however, is if they’re able to win the Stanley Cup again. Winning a sports championship is hard. Winning a championship again is harder. If this team can win again, they may just be the best in team history.

2016 Penguins Preview: AHL Player Predictions

During last seasons incredible championship run, the Penguins were led by a few dominant forces. Phil Kessel was able to silence his haters, Matt Murray put up an amazing rookie performance, and Sidney Crosby solidified his spot as the world’s greatest. While Matt Murray was by far the Penguins best rookie, many players seem to overlook all of the other rookies that had quality minutes in Pittsburgh this season. Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl played crucial minutes as rookies in the playoffs. Along with these players, there’s a couple other players in the Penguins system that have a chanve to crack the lineup. Here’s a few rookies/AHL players that have a chance to wear a Penguins uniform this season.

David Warsofsky- A member of the Penguins last season, Warsofsky was claimed by the New Jersey Devils through waivers. If many Penguins fans forgot about Warsofsky, he was injured when referee Tim Peel slipped and knocked over the Penguins defenseman. David was brought up from the AHL due to injury, and if that happens again this year, surely Warsofsky will fill the gap. He was solid on defense and should be a great replacement defenseman.

Scott Wilson- Brought up with other players such as Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl, Wilson has a heck of a shot to even make the opening night roster. He scored goals in three straight games this season and looked to be a great offensive threat. Unfortunately, Wilson suffered a foot injury that required surgery and missed the entire championship run by the Penguins. With an offseason of healing and a strong training camp, Wilson has a great chance to start the season with the Penguins. While I don’t see Wilson playing much in the top six, expect him to be a bigger role player in the Penguins bottom six.

Oskar Sundqvist- After seeing his initial preseason play a few seasons ago, I thought Sundqvist was NHL ready. Thankfully, I am not an NHL General Manager. Sundqvist will fit in nicely as an injury replacement center for the Penguins, but with Matt Cullen now resigning, his chances of making the roster have decreased. There isn’t much offensive upside with Sundqvist, but his defensive awareness is very impressive. Sundqvist will be the Penguins future fourth line center, but for now, he will remain in the press box for the time being.

Jake Guentzel- A very pleasant surprise for the Penguins, Guentzel helps improve the Penguins depth and prospect pool. It will take some more seasoning in order for him to be NHL ready, but the Penguins have a great player in Guentzel. A their round draft choice in 2013, Jake spent three seasons at the University of Nebraska-Omaha before joining the Penguins late this year. Recording 14 points in 10 AHL playoff games, Guentzel was stellar for the Baby Penguins. Expect a midseason injury call up for Guentzel.

Carter Rowney- While there’s a slim chance that Rowney sees time with the Penguins this season, Rowney looked great with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last season. Spending the last three seasons with the Baby Penguins, the Penguins extended Rowney to an NHL contract in March. This doesn’t mean Rowney is guaranteed a spot in Pittsburgh, it is encouraging to see the Penguins continuously find NHL calibre forwards. Scoring 24 goals and 56 points in 74 games last season in the AHL, Rowney has proven his offensive upside. If he begins the season at the same pace as last year, he should see some time in Pittsburgh.

Stuart Percy- A first round pick of Toronto in 2011, Percy was never able to blossom into the player that Toronto expected of him. Signing with Pittsburgh this offseason, Stuart is the Penguin’s newest reclamation project. After showing the rest of the league that the Penguins can rediscover talented offensive defenseman like Justin Schultz last season, Pittsburgh will hope to settle down Percy’s game. Percy has only ever played in 12 NHL games before and was never truly given a chance to show what he can do. If Percy can settle his game down and provide solid possession, then perhaps we will see him in a Penguins jersey at some point this season.

Starting Job A Fleury of Activity

After suffering from concussions toward the end of the season, Marc-Andre Fleury lost his starting goaltending position to rookie goaltender Matt Murray. Once Murray hit a small slump in the Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa Bay, the Penguins have Fleury one last shot. Playing in game five, Fleury just didn’t look his best. The Penguins lost the game in overtime and Fleury admitted to not being 100%. Fleury remainder the Penguins backup as Matt Murray helped guide the Penguins to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup Championship.

After a lot of trade speculation, Jim Rutherford maintained that he intends to keep both Fleury and Murray on the roster for the upcoming season. While it is presumed that Matt Murray would be the team’s starter, Marc-Andre Fleury thinks otherwise. Hoping to win his starting position back, Fleury now says that he “won’t go down without a fight.” 

I think it’s great that Marc-Andre Fleury is determined to win his position back. The idea of Fleury vs Murray could really bring out the best in both players. The real question, though, is can Fleury actually win his starting spot back?

Matt Murray was phenomenal in the playoffs. He tied the rookie record for playoff wins (15) and was considered by many the Penguins best player during the playoffs. His play was absolutely stellar and should only improve moving forward. Being only 22 years old, it’s not illogical to see Murray as the team’s netminder for years to come. 

When you look at the basic stats, does Fleury really have a chance to even remain on this team? Matt Murray is only 22 years old and the only way he can go is up. Marc- Andre Fleury is 31. That’s almost ten years older than Murray. Murray also has a salary of $550,000 a year, which is hardly a comparable figure to his production. Marc-Andre Fleury, on the other hand, makes $5.75 million for the next three years. If the team decided to trade Fleury, the money could be used to either 1) bring in a top-six forward or top-four defenseman or 2) be used on Matt Murray’s next contract. Fleury’s contract could be used to help the team in other ways.

For the upcoming season, though, Fleury does have a chance. It’s hard to forget that without Fleury, the Penguins probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs. Fleury carried the team while their play was lackluster and pretty much kept them from sinking. He played arguably some of his best hockey until he was concussed later in the season. How can anyone forget about that?

What covers Fleury’s play, though, was Matt Murray’s. Murray won the Penguins the Stanley Cup. That’s no easy task and he was able to guide them to championship in only his first season. With how great he’s played, Murray can only get better….right? 

Matt Murray has been highly regarded by many teams in the NHL. It’s well perceived that Murray is going to be an exceptional goaltender moving forward. People also thought the same thing with Andrew Hammond. After earning the hearts of fans and the starting position in Ottawa, Hammond helped the Senators do the impossible and make the playoffs. That was the best we ever saw from Hammond. Teams watched footage of him and learned his habits. Pretty soon he was right back on the bench as a backup and still can’t steal the starting spot back from Craig Anderson. What if the same happens to Murray? 

It’s hard to see Murray dropping as bad as Hammond but it’s not impossible. If Murray comes to training camp and shows signs of a sophomore slump, Fleury could easily win his starting spot back. The Penguins could easily win a Stanley Cup if Fleury performs like he did earlier last season.

Let’s say both Murray and Fleury look great in training camp. Who starts? If that’s the case, then both. Matt Murray is entering the final year of his contract already. Making $550,000 a year is extremely cheap for a player of his caliber. If Murray starts the entire season, he’s going to want a huge payday. It’s not ludicrous to think Murray would receive $5-6 million on the open market. Looking at some of the contracts teams paid this offseason, teams would throw large amounts of money to lure in Murray. Thankfully, Murray is still a restricted free agent (RFA), meaning the team can match any offer sheet. 

Looking at this, if the team splits the amount of starts between Fleury and Murray, then the Penguins may be able to push for Murray to receive a cheaper bridge deal. Once the Penguins see that Murray is consistent enough, than they can move Fleury and kee Murray at a discounted price.

The other thing to remember with Murray is that he started his career late in the season. Murray has played a total of 34 games including the playoffs. Could Matt Murray, being only 22 years old, handle the workload of an entire 82 game schedule plus playoffs? We saw this with Olli Maatta and his fatigue after coming out of the junior leagues. Keeping Fleury on the team could lessen the load from Murray and keep both goalies fresh.

So to sum this all up, I don’t see Marc-Andre Fleury ever being the clear-cut number one starter. Matt Murray has so much promise and has already won the Penguins a Stanley Cup. I do think it is very likely we see both Fleury and Murray splitting the games, giving the Penguins two extremely talented goaltenders. 

The Penguins are in a great position coming into this season, and with the depth in net, the team is set up for another Stanley Cup Championship.

Where Are They Now?: Pens’ First Rounders

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a trend of trading first round draft picks.

Sometimes trading a first round pick turns into Phil Kessel, who helped bring a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh. Other times, trading a first round pick turns into two months of Jarome Iginla. Regardless, this article will dive into the Penguins last 10 years of first round picks and where they are now.

2007- #20 Angelo Esposito, Quebec. 

After years of picking in the top five, the Penguins finally had regular season success, dropping their spot in the draft. The Penguins hoped Esposito could still be a part of the team’s top six and compliment Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Esposito was originally regarded as the top overall pick of the draft, but due to declining stats, he fell to the Penguins at the twentieth spot. With his play declining even worse, the Penguins threw Esposito in a package to Atlanta for Marian Hossa. Hossa helped the Penguins reach the Stanley Cup Finals where they eventually lost to the Detroit Red Wings. Esposito, on the other hand, never played a game in the NHL. After spending much time in the AHL and the ECHL, Esposito was out of work and finally signed a contract in the Italian Hockey League. Esposito, now 27, will be most likely never see NHL action. He’s currently playing with SG Cortina of the IHL. Other players available at this pick: Max Pacioretty, Mikael Backlund, P.K. Subban

2008- Pittsburgh traded pick #29 to Atlanta as a result of the Marian Hossa trade. Atlanta selected: Daultan Leveille, Saint Catharines.

Other players available at this spot: Jakob Markstrom, Jake Allen, Slava Voynov
2009- #30 Simon Despres, Saint John. 

Coming off of a Stanley Cup Championship, the Penguins looked to add more depth to their defensive pool. Drafting Simon from the QMJHL, he was a player that was going to need a few years to develop. Despres finally moved to professional hockey after spending two seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs. Throughout almost his entire Penguins tenure, Simon was very inconsistent. Some days he would play stable and reliable defense, yet others he was unsound and shaky on the back end. His play improved during the 2014-15 season as he found top four minutes, but Despres was traded to Anaheim for veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Lovejoy was also shaky at first with the Penguins but eventually helped the team win its fourth Stanley Cup. Despres is still with Anaheim, and though his play is much better, he still plays much like he did with the Penguins. Other players available at this spot: Ryan O’Reilly, Jakob Silfverberg, Kyle Clifford

2010- #20 Beau Bennett, Penticton. 

Looking to add a piece to their top six, the Penguins drafted Beau Bennett from his native California. Spending two years with Denver University, Beau played half a season of minor league hockey before finding a full time spot in Pittsburgh. Looking impressive in his first season, Bennett was supposed to be a top forward for the Penguins. Suffering multiple wrist injuries, Beau was never in the lineup enough to find consistent play. He was constantly out of the lineup with injuries, and when he was playing, he could never generate enough offense. Beau spent four seasons with Pittsburgh and won the Stanley Cup, but with the Penguins needing more cap space, Bennet was shipped to New Jersey for a third round pick. Beau will try to find better play and more opportunity now with the Devils. Other players available at this pick: Riley Sheahan, Kevin Hayes, Evgeny Kuznetsov

2011- #23 Joe Morrow, Portland.

A defenseman with great offensive upside, Morrow was a steady puck moving defenseman. After spending another year with the Portland Winterhawks, Morrow made the jump to professional hockey. Spending all of his time in the AHL, Morrow never played a regular season game for the Penguins. He was traded at the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline for Brenden Morrow and then shipped to Boston a few months later as a part of the Loui Eriksson trade. Now in Boston, Morrow just signed a one year extension worth 800K and is struggling to make the Bruins lineup. Other players available: Vladislav Namestnikov, Brandon Saad, Ty Rattie, John Gibson.

2012- Pick number 8 acquired from Carolina as a result of the Jordan Staal trade. #8 Derrick Pouliot, Portland. 

Highly regarded by the Penguins management, Pouliot was drafted earlier than expected. Still a top prospect of the Penguins, Pouliot played an additional two seasons in Portland before coming to Pittsburgh. His play didn’t pick up as fast as Maatta which resulted in Pouliot spending much of his time in the AHL. Still struggling to make the Penguins roster, it should be interesting to see how the Penguins handle the Pouliot situation. I believe he can still be a top four defenseman in the NHL, and if the Penguins play him more this season, he can elevate his game. Other players available: Filip Forsberg, Mikhail Grigorenko

2012- #22 Olli Maatta, London.

A player the Penguins scouts felt fortunate to fall to them turned out to be a top pairing defenseman. After spending just one extra season in London, Maatta made the Penguins opening night roster for the 2013-14 season and made an immediate impact. Though slightly inconsistent at points, Maatta has been a steady force for the Penguins over the last few years and was a big part of the Penguins Stanley Cup Championship. Signed for another six years, Maatta will be apart of this Penguins team for a long time. Without question, Maatta has been the best draft selection by the Penguins in recent years.

2013- Pittsburgh traded pick #28 to Calgary as a result of the Jarome Iginla trade. Calgary selected: Morgan Klimchuk, Regina.

Players available at this spot: Robert Hagg, Tyler Bertuzzi, Chris Bigras

2014- #22 Kasperi Kapanen, Kalpa.

The son of Sami Kapanen, Kasperi was a player that management thought could be an immediate boost to the team’s top six. After a great preseason, Kapanen didn’t make the team’s final roster, but was no doubt their best prospect. When the Penguins made the move to acquire Phil Kessel, though, the team needed a high level prospect to send back. That player was Kapanen. Now a member of the Maple Leafs, Kasperi was on the Toronto roster at the end of the 2015-16 season and should look to make the roster full time next season. 

2015- Pittsburgh traded pick #16 to Edmonton as a result of the David Perron trade. The pick was then traded to the New York Islanders. New York Selected: Mathew Barzal, Seattle.

Players available at this spot: Thomas Chabot, Kyle Conner, Nick Merkley

2016- Pittsburgh traded pick #30 to Toronto as a result of the Phil Kessel trade. Toronto traded this pick to Anaheim as a result of the Frederik Andersen trade. Anaheim selected: Sam Steel, Regina.

Schultz Signing Bolsters Penguins Defense

A deal that many people saw as improbable, the Penguins resigned Justin Schultz to a one year, $1.4 million contract. With veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy leaving the Penguins in free agency, there was still a need for another defenseman. Derrick Pouliot can be a future top pairing defenseman, but this Penguins team is in a win now mode. That is why signing Schultz is critical to the Penguins success.

Many people thought Jim Rutherford was crazy when he said there was a chance to sign both Cullen and Schultz. I especially thought that it would be impossible to sign either, but with this contract to Schultz, there is still a small amount of room left for a Cullen return. (Rule 1: Never doubt Jim Rutherford). 

This signing almost surely solidifies the Penguins defense. Schultz should be an everyday defenseman now come October, and given the need for right handed defenseman, Schultz should fit into a role similar to Ben Lovejoy. As of now, this is how the Penguins defense looks:

Maatta- Letang

Dumoulin- Daley

Cole- Schultz

Pouliot- Warsofsky 

That is an amazing defense just too look at. Derrick Pouliot was an 8th overall pick in 2012, and a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Jim Rutherford would be smart to keep Pouliot at the lower end of the totem pole this season in order to pay him less at the end of his contract. While it may not be best to keep him in the press box every night, it helps everyone fit under the salary cap. Pouliot will see NHL time this season, because if you know the Penguins at all, he will surely come in as an injury replacement.

Pouliot was also very inconsistent in his play. He began the season in the AHL after a very poor preseason and it took him over half the season to make it back in the NHL. When he did play, there were two types of Derrick. He either dominated possession stats or brought the team down. That level of inconsistency is not what the Penguins need right now, especially for a team looking to repeat a Stanley Cup championship. Maybe Pouliot will pick up his play, but adding Schultz gives the Penguins more stability.

Signing Schultz for cheap also means that he can be qualified for a lower amount of money. At the end of this upcoming season, Schultz will be 26 and still a restricted free agent. Under the current CBA, the Penguins will still hold possession of Schultz after this season, being able to retain his rights for another season after this year. With this contract, I’d expect to see Schulz for at least another two seasons.

When Schultz signed with the Edmonton Oilers, he was expected to be their top defenseman. Right out of the gate he was given 25 minutes a night, with some even calling him a future Norris Trophy winner. Things never panned out that way for him and his play suffered. Media scrutinized Schultz to no end and fans were ecstatic to see him leave. Once arriving in Pittsburgh, though he was slightly sheltered, Schultz was relieved of the pressure and able to focus on just playing. He did just that, and in return, helped guide the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.

Reviewing the Penguins Rookies

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