2016 Penguins Preview: Defenseman

I feel it. You can feel it. The electricity is in the air from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ transition into the upcoming title defense season. How can you defend a Cup without you’re defense?

It’s nearly impossible to retain a whole defensive core for consecutive seasons without players seeking a raise in pay with another team. It’s even harder to return the entire defensive core after a Stanley Cup victory. The Penguins did that, minus Ben Lovejoy as he signed with Ray Shero in New Jersey.

Returning a core as good as this one takes commitment. Justin Schultz is committed. Either he really wanted to play for another chance at a Stanley Cup or he just didn’t recieve any offers out on the open market because the Pens got him on a cheap deal. Otherwise, this staff is ready and committed to being just as good this upcoming season.

Kris Letang: 71 GP, 16 G, 51 A, 67 PTS

Letang will head into 2016-2017 as the unquestioned leader of the defense. Not that he wasn’t before, but his start to last season indicated he may not be any longer.

After being paired with Ian Cole, Letang suffered through a two and a half month stretch of misery before finally finding a rhythm within the Penguins offense.

He found success with Trevor Daley throughout the season until Daley went down right before the playoffs. Then he got to play with Brian Dumoulin down the stretch. The two never looked back, both scoring goals in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins won the Cup that game.

A healthy Letang has the possibility to be a legitimate contender for the Norris Trophy if he plays well the entire season. Last year, half a season wasn’t going to win him the award. The Penguins are in good hands with this guy on defense.

Olli Maatta: 67 GP, 6 G, 13 A, 19 PTS

The young Finnish defenseman who has been through a tumultuous beginning to his career, including cancer and surgery, was rewarded a six year deal to stick around and hopefully become Letang’s long term partner.

If this pairing comes into fruition, it could be one of the hardest to defend in the league. The only problem would be Maatta’s foot speed. After inconsistent playing time, Maatta could never get his feet underneath of him.

He finally started to get hot towards the end of the Tampa Bat series and heading into the Cup finals against San Jose.

I like the young kid’s composure and I think he can thrive if he plays with Letang. I expect to see a ton of Maatta this year and I can foresee a much better season out of Olli Maatta.

Brian Dumoulin: 79 GP, 0 G, 16 A, 16 PTS

This man is my favorite Penguin. It’s been documented before and will continue to be documented that I love him and he’s the most under appreciated Penguin on the squad.

The least offensive threat across the NHL has a puck moving presence. He by no means is faster than his matchup on the ice, but is incredible at keeping people to the outside and not being beat.

His defense is his strength. He matches opponents speed and is rarely caught out of position. I could count the turnovers from him last season on one hand and he got to play with Kris Letang during the Cup final after the Trevor Daley injury.

He scores two goals in the playoffs last season. One against Washington in a crucial game and one in the clincher against the San Jose Sharks.

This season, fans will appreciate Dumo more and watch him become a shut down defenseman. Remember, Paul Martin was originally known for being a sound defenseman in season one but became an offensive threat after that season. They’re two different types of players, but you never know.

Trevor Daley: 53 GP, 6 G, 16 A, 22 PTS (with Penguins)

What a great trade that made absolutely no sense! Who trades Rob Scuderi for anything more than a bag of pucks and an eighth round pick? (yes, I’m aware there isn’t one, it’s my poor sense of humor).

Daley came onto the scene and played some great hockey. It’s unfortunate that he went down with an injury right before the Cup Finals rolled around but he’ll be more than ready to jump into action opening night.

Daley likely will play again with Dumoulin. The Penguins have every intention of getting Olli Maatta to the point where he can play with Kris Letang and do it well so expect this amazing pairing from last season to stick around.

Can you think of a better trade in recent memory? The David Perron one comes to mind, but nothing helped a very teetering defense more than trading an old, no longer serviceable defenseman for a puck moving defenseman with some foot speed to fit the scheme head coach Mike Sullivan put into place.

Ian Cole: 70 GP, 0 G, 12 A, 12 PTS

Before I get talking about Ian Cole, how beautiful are those jerseys?

Anyway, Cole started out last season terribly with Kris Letang. I mean bad. He eventually sat a couple games and come back around about mid way through the season.

Cole didn’t score a single goal in the regular season either but he was a very good Defensive defenseman once playoff time came around.

If Cole can replicate his second half play from last season, there’s no reason he can’t keep his spot in the lineup.

Justin Schultz: 18 GP, 1 G, 7 A, 8 PTS (with Penguins)

I like the fact that Justin Schultz was given up for a third round draft selection that was reacquired when they got rid of an excess player in Beau Bennett.

Schultz wasn’t exactly an offensive protegé when he got here but he had Norris Trophy potential coming into the league. Unfortunately, being an Edmonton Oilers defenseman is something not too many people would do by choice.

He can be an offensive threat for sure as his career high in goals is 11 for Edmonton. He had 1 goal in 18 regular season games for Pittsburgh so if he gets a consistent chance to play as a top-6 defenseman, expect that production to be higher this season.

Derrick Pouliot: 22 GP, 0 G, 7 A, 7 PTS

And finally, the interesting case of Derrick Pouliot, as I wrote about him about a week ago, is something that will be fun to monitor.

I suspect you’ll get to see more of him this year but Jim Rutherford has really given some mixed signals about his plans for number 51.

Many believe that he continues to endorse Pouliot because of his struggles and how they can boost his trade value. But if you’ve seen pictures, Pouliot looks like an entirely different person.

He’s much skinnier and has cut his long hair. Could a changed physical appearance give him the opportunity to change his on-ice performance? Only time will be able to tell.


The Saga of Derrick Pouliot

When Ray Shero was the GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was able to draft D Derrick Pouliot with a pick that he acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in a trade that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina.

The Shero regime was high on Derrick Pouliot but kept him in the minor leagues for some much needed seasoning. He finally got called to the NHL and scored on his first career shot against the Florida Panthers. He’d had a rocky road and never became a consistent starter.

It finally looked as though Pouliot’s chance to be an everyday player had arrived when Ben Lovejoy and Justin Schultz hit free agency. Then just like that, Justin Schultz was a Penguin again.

It’s clear that this regime with Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan is clearly not part of the believers who think Derrick Pouliot can be a legitimate NHL top-4 defenseman. They have made that clear by making him a healthy scratch on a regular basis.

Many of us can see that Pouliot might have some serious offensive skill. That’s his problem. He’s too reliant on himself to make offensive plays. He does too much skating and turns the puck over. His defensive game needs some fixing as well. If he puts it together, he can be an incredible defenseman.

Will the Penguins allow Pouliot to be part of the mix in Pittsburgh it will he be showcased and eventually shipped off to another team?

It’s likely that the fans wouldn’t be happy about the return for Pouliot after the potential he has to be a top defenseman. But the NHL market doesn’t play for potential, it plays for results and Pouliot hasn’t put up enough results.

The Penguins are almost certainly going to face some type of injury along the grueling 82-game schedule. That would pave the way for Pouliot to see time. I’d also imagine they’d be willing to let Pouliot play over someone who is struggling throughout the year and make him available.

He won’t have a starting job out of camp because the Penguins lines will likely consist of Kris Letang playing with Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley with Brian Dumoulin, and Ian Cole alongside Justin Schultz.

The Penguins will have a choice to make with Daley next offseason, though. As he will play his final season on his current contract, Daley’s success with the Pens last year is going to be tough to match for someone who wasn’t expected to do as he did. If the Penguins are willing to wait one more season to get Pouliot consistent top six minutes, they may hold on to 51.

They may even trade Trevor Daley at deadline time to give Pouliot the chance, but he’d still have to wait until March for that opportunity.

Ian Cole seems like the one who would be scratched first if the Penguins want to see some action from their former first round selection in Pouliot.

As we began to se least year, it seemed like Pouliot had finally gained some confidence skating with the puck, something he struggled mildly with previously. His defensive game was his true Achilles heal. He has always been one to be lazier on the back check and not finish his checks.

I still don’t think Derrick Pouliot has hit the roof. In fact, I know he hasn’t. He hasn’t had enough NHL ice time to show whether he was worth the pick. But he’s not getting any younger and the Penguins still don’t seem to have a plan for him as far as he pertains to their organization.

Their eventual move will probably be to trade him. They’re going to end up getting back fair market value for a guy with minimal results in minimal NHL time. If he shines somewhere else, which could very well happen, the Penguins will look dumb for trading him. That’s the game you play as a general manager. Jim Rutherford has done it well.

Phillin’ Sorry For USA Hockey

This goes out to all you USA Hockey fans and Kessel supporters in particular: Even as a Canadian, I feel your pain.

What do I have to cry about, you may ask

Well, admittedly, not a whole lot. We have arguably the best player in the world, the best team, and most of the best up and comers of team North America. But let me remind you where we were around 20 short years ago…

Picture it. Canada. 1991. We had our own tournament, the Canada Cup, and we owned it. The trophy was a Maple Leaf and only ONE time out of 5 did we let anyone else hold it (Russia in 1981). We won the ’72 Summit Series. We won the ’76 Canada Cup (the first ever). Then in 1979 I was born. The world’s best player, Canadian Wayne Gretzky, entered the NHL that same year. We won the Canada Cup in 1984, the year the next great Canadian hero that Pens fans may remember entered the NHL: Mr. Mario Lemieux. Three short years later, the 1987 Canada Cup was played. For me, that is the greatest hockey there ever was. The Russians were unbelievable, and Canada was even better. Three finals games all 6-5 scores. Gretzky and Lemieux combined for that iconic goal and the trophy was ours yet again. As an Oilers fan, I also got 4 cups in the decade, and again in 1990. Then Canada also won the very last Canada Cup in 1991. So as a young fan growing up, for my first 12 years of living, all I ever knew was winning. My teams just always won and that’s the way it was.

As you know, even when the Oilers stopped winning, for the next two years I got to see Mario Lemieux win two Cups himself. The two Canadian heroes had combined for three Canada Cups and 6 Stanley Cups in 9 years!!!

The only blemish from the 1991 Canada Cup was a greasy shot from American Gary Suter on Wayne Gretzky. He was out of the tournament AND missed the first month of the NHL season. Not only that, but the Americans of 1991 were actually very good. Veeerrry good. So we wanted them again and very badly.

Then it happened. In 1996, they took away our tournament. OUR tournament. For the first time, the international best on best tournament was to be known as the World Cup. Not the Canada Cup. We were determined to make sure everyone remembered it was ours.

But you Americans had other ideas. It was a two out of three final again, and we squeaked out an OT win in game one only to lose the next two games by a combined score of 10-4. Not cool. It wasn’t our tournament anymore.

Our chance at redemption was only two short years later. For the first time, NHL players would go to the Olympics in Nagano 1998.

Things weren’t all bad. Canada had won 8 of the past 10 World Junior Hockey Championships, including 5 in a row up to 1997. But that 1996 World Cup bothered us greatly. And here’s how we can relate to what’s happening for you here in 2016.

For some reason, with the world’s best players at our disposal and an identity of skill and speed, we named Bobby Clarke to pick our first ever NHL laden Olympic team. The man who played for the Broad Street Bullies. The man who’s most celebrated hockey moment is slashing Russian great Valeri Kharlomov in game 6 of the 1972 series. Now, don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t a bad player, two Cups, and lots of heart, but maybe I would say I don’t necessarily agree with his hockey philosophy. His models for teams of GM of the Flyers were much the same.

Not surprisingly, when the 1998 team was named, we were left scratching our collective heads a little bit.

Adam Foote and Eric Desjardins on D instead of Scott Niedemayer? Rob Zamuner, Rod Brindamour, Shayne Corson instead of Mark Messier? Famous Flyer Eric Lindros was named Captain instead of Gretzky or Yzerman? Please.

This gritty version of team Canada ended up finishing fourth and it struggled most of the way there. The most frustrating moment was the 1-0 semi-final shoot out loss to the Czech Republic. We barely scraped into the semis and were outclassed for most of that game. Then we lost to Finland in a failure to salvage anything.

And the hardest part was much like your plight here in 2016, almost everyone saw it coming. If only we’d had Twitter back then. Heads would have metaphorically rolled.

Actually, on paper, we were still a very good team, and we came within 1 shootout goal away from a berth in the final. You could nitpick about three or four or five. Paul Kariya was injured. Lemieux was retired. There were challenges. But ultimately it came down to the design of the team. It just wasn’t Canada to me.

And we didn’t even medal.

We lost in 1996. We tried something new two years later and it failed. We moved on. Let’s hope your brass feels the same way.

And to be fair, I do think the USA team identity change was actually a good idea. Trying to go skill on skill with Canada in recent tournaments hasn’t worked for anyone. Why not try a new approach in what appeared to be a gimmick tournament?

And also to be fair, there’s a lot of talk about how Conn Smythe Trophy nominee Phil Kessel should have been a shoe in. But just a reminder that I spent most of November and all the way up February trying to explain to most of you why the Pittsburgh Penguins shouldn’t trade him.

So much like Canada after 1996, there’s a small chance your 2016 will also get a shot at redemption two short years later in the Olympics of 2018. Let’s hope for your sake if it does happen, the similarities of our experiences end there.

Can We Expect Another Slow Start From the Penguins?

The 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins did not seem like a championship team in December of 2015. On December 12th, 2015 the Penguins only had a record of 15-10-3. They were slow, and definitely not motivated at all. Head coach Mike Johnston was fired, and former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Mike Sullivan came into replace him. In Sullivan’s first four games that team didn’t win at all. Rookie goaltender Matt Murray was called up with a few of his young and swift AHL buddies. The team was beginning to form an identity. David Perron was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for speedy winger Carl Hagelin.

They started winning, and they didn’t seem to want to stop. Matt Murray was beginning to prove himself to one day be a permanent starter for an NHL team. Marc-Andre Fleury was in the midst his best season within recent memory. The Penguins used their speed and heart to beat opponents.

With the Presidents’ trophy leading Washington Capitals at the top of the division, the second spot was up for grabs. Within a month of the playoffs, the Penguins found themselves in a three way battle for a wildcard position in the east. After a few weeks passed, they found themselves comfortably sitting in second place in the Metropolitan division and had clinched the playoffs.

The rest is history. The Penguins won the first round four to one against the Rangers, defeated the Capitals, the NHL’s best team, in six games, and topped the young and skilled Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh game. The emergence of the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel (HBK) line and the poise of rookie goaltender Matt Murray drove the Penguins to a six game rout of the San Jose Sharks.

Now, the past is the past and we are moving on to a new season. The question is, “Can we expect another slow start for the Penguins in 2016-17?” If we go by history, most likely not.

The Penguins didn’t pick up the pace last season until they found their identity as a speedy and persistent team. Now that they know this identity, they will just be picking up where the left off last season. Not many changes occurred in the offseason, other than the loss of backup/third goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, the Beau Bennett trade, and Ben Lovejoy signing elsewhere. Down to the core, the Penguins are still the same team that they were last year. They just need to play like they did.

The season after the 2009 Stanley Cup win, after 41 games the Penguins had  26-14-1 and were on a good pace. They finished second in the division and fourth in the eastern conference. Unfortunately, they made a second round exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

Again, this team is different. The team the Penguins have this year is special. They are the fastest team, they have the most heart. This team has an identity and is looking to keep going. Teams have tried to build similar to us, and others have tried to build to combat us. Can the Penguins answer the call? We can only wait and see. All Penguins fans should be excited for this year because the players are going to give us a good one. Expect big things from the Pittsburgh Penguins this year.

The Penguins and the Expansion Draft 

The Las Vegas Nighthawks. Black Knights. Dark Knights? Knighty Knights (trademarked by Anna @NHLPittPens)? Whatever they’ll be called, there will be 31 teams in the NHL come Fall 2017, and the with the NHL expanding, the incumbent 30 teams will have to give up a talented player on their roster. The Penguins find themselves in a great situation in terms of a possible repeat of winning the Stanley Cup. They have as deep a roster as any team in the league, including a duo at goaltender that any of the other 29 teams would love to have. But the expansion draft is looming and the Penguins can only protect so many players. 

First, teams have one of two options when it comes to protecting players. Either a team can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or they can protect eight skaters (regardless of position) and one goalie. Players that have a No-Movement Clause (NMC) in their contract HAVE to be protected by the team. The Penguins have tough decisions to make, and they will sorely miss one player that will be in a Las Vegas [or another team’s] sweater. Let’s take a closer look at the Penguins’ situation:

Guaranteed Protection (NMC’s):

  • F Sidney Crosby 
  • F Evgeni Malkin
  • F Phil Kessel
  • D Kris Letang
  • G Marc-Andre Fleury

The first four listed are a given that the Penguins would lock up anyway. All of them are star/superstar level and under contract for multiple years. They aren’t going anywhere. Fleury’s situation is the biggest topic of discussion in Pittsburgh. Fleury is loved by just about everyone inside and outside of the organization, but the Penguins just won a Stanley Cup with 22 year-old Matt Murray carrying the load the last 3 months of the season. Murray showed he’s ready for the NHL level, and then some. He’s a legitimate goalie who’s only going to get better. Yet, the Penguins can only protect one goalie. The only way the Penguins could retain both Fleury and Murray is if the NHL does not consider AHL time as “professional” time, because players that have less than two years of “pro” experience are exempt from the expansion draft. Now, the good thing is that the Penguins don’t have to submit their list of protected players until June 17th (Las Vegas makes their picks on June 20th), so they could hang on to Fleury for the entire year and have arguably the best goalie duo in the league, regardless of whether Murray is exempt or not. One thing to be cognizant of though is if Murray is not exempt, and the Penguins make another run to the Cup Final, they’d only have days to trade Fleury. Now Fleury’s NMC only refers to not being sent to the minors or being waived, but he also has a limited no-trade clause, meaning the Penguins have a short list of teams to deal Fleury to, unless he approves a trade to whomever. I can’t see the Penguins choosing Fleury over Murray if this scenario plays out. Murray is 22 and on the rise. Fleury is 32 and has only 2 or 3 more seasons of really good hockey left before you see some serious regression. If Murray is not exempt and not protected, it’s pretty much a guarantee that Las Vegas picks him. He’s young, talented, and cheap against the cap. I’m afraid the Penguins are going to have to pretty much give Fleury away for almost nothing. It’ll be a seller’s market, and teams will know the Penguins will be desperate to trade him. The only thing that would make this situation better is if the Penguins lift the Cup again next year. That will help ease the pain of whoever gets plucked from the organization. Now, best case scenario, things may work out and the league may not include AHL time as “pro” time and Murray would be exempt from the draft. No moving Fleury or Murray. Everybody wins.

Probable Protected Players:

  • F Patric Hornqvist 
  • F Carl Hagelin 
  • F Nick Bonino
  • D Olli Maatta
  • D Brian Dumoulin 

These would be the players I’d protect, going with the first option given earlier in this article. That still leaves one forward to protect, and the league’s decision on AHL time could help decide that. Kunitz, Daley, Schultz, Cullen, and Fehr are all unrestricted free agents after the 2016-2017 season, so you can’t protect them.

I think the way it plays out is this: this will be Marc-Andre Fleury’s last season in Pittsburgh. It saddens me, but I understand it. Murray is exciting because he’s so young, yet so mature for his age, on and off the ice. Fleury, however, has been a rock in goal for several years. He’s a great teammate, a great goalie, and a great person. That smile of his, well, makes you smile. He made the save of his life in game 7 of the 2009 Final, preserving the Penguins third Stanley Cup. If this is his last season in a black and gold sweater, I hope it’s a great one. He’s the best goalie in team history. Flower has created a special place in all of our hearts, and it will be hard to see him go.

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.

2016 Penguins Preview: Forwards

Toronto Maple Leafs v Pittsburgh Penguins
PITTSBURGH, PA – NOVEMBER 26: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Evgeni Malkin #71 talk before a face-off during the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Consol Energy Center on November 26, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Surprisingly, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be returning every single forward who played significant time in the playoffs in their run to the Stanley Cup.  This is an extremely rare occurrence.  For example, the 2010 Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks lost forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Colin Fraser, Kris Versteeg, and Andrew Ladd in the offseason.  The 2011 Bruins lost Blake Wheeler, Michael Ryder, and Mark Recchi.  The 2013 Blackhawks lost Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik, and Viktor Stalberg.

The Penguins?

They lost nobody.  At least nobody who would have started the season in the NHL with a significant impact.  Most of the forwards the Penguins lost in the offseason were depth AHL forwards.

For the start of the season, despite some experimenting that will likely occur in preseason, I would think that the Penguins forward lineup will remain the exact same as it did for game 6 when they lifted the Stanley Cup in San Jose.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it:

Sheary – Crosby – Hornqvist

Kunitz – Malkin – Rust

Hagelin – Bonino – Kessel

Kuhnhackl – Cullen – Fehr

(Sundqvist – Wilson)

First, I will say that although I love the HBK line, and I cannot deny the chemistry that these guys have, I would not be surprised if Sullivan tried out Hagelin and/or Kessel on the 2nd or 1st line.

Hear me out.

I really like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary.  That being said, I do not view either of these guys as top 6 forwards.  I see them as terrific 3rd line guys.   In addition, at this point in his career, I feel like Kunitz is no longer a top 6 guy.  He is, again, a 3rd line player at best.  So would you rather play 2 top 6 players, Hagelin and Kessel, in a 3rd line role simply for chemistry’s sake, when 3 of your 4 wingers in the top 6 really aren’t “top 6” guys?

I don’t know.  I am not necessarily saying I am for this idea, but it is something to ponder, and something that I am sure will be on Sullivan’s mind early on.

All of that being said, let’s break down this likely starting lineup line by line, and player by player.

Line 1: Sheary – Crosby – Hornqvist

I believe this line will, and can be, extremely effective.  Crosby has the speed of Sheary on his left, as well as the tenacity of Hornqvist on his right.  I think Sheary could put up around 10-15 goals and 35-40 points if he stays relatively healthy, especially if he plays with Sid.  Hornqvist, who put up a 22-29-51 stat line last year in 82 regular season games, will likely produce a similar output.  That said, I think Hornqvist can put up 25 goals and 60 points this coming year, because of the man in the center.  Sidney Crosby will be the Sidney Crosby of old.  I think he eclipses 100 points this year, or at least comes close, if he stays relatively healthy.  Look for that Art Ross trophy to be returning to Sid’s trophy case by the end of the year.

Line 2: Kunitz – Malkin – Rust

Call me crazy, but I think Bryan Rust can be a 20+ goal scorer in this league.  He is fast, has a quick release, and if he continues to play with Malkin, will definitely get his opportunities.  I know that he was the king of missed opportunities often times last year, but James Neal was the same way when the Penguins first acquired him, and he followed the rough start to his Penguins career by netting 40+ goals the following season.  No, Bryan Rust is not James Neal, but I believe that if he continues to get high danger scoring chances, pucks will start going in.  I think Rust nets about 15-20 goals and puts up around 40 points.  Kunitz surprisingly had 40 points in 80 games last year during the regular season, which for his age is not half bad.  That being said, I think he declines slightly.  Kunitz’s physicality is a huge part of this line’s success, but I think he scores around 15 goals and 35-40 points.  I think Malkin will see an increase in production this year as well.  I have read a good bit this offseason regarding Malkin’s offseason training, and he seems ready to play.  I think he produces around a point per game if he stays healthy.  Chalk up about 35 goals and 75-85 points for Geno.

Line 3 – Hagelin – Bonino – Kessel

Phil, Haggy, and Bones, the HBK line!  There is no doubt this line found some chemistry late in the season with Malkin’s injury.  Hagelin went from struggling in Anaheim to producing 27 points in 37 regular season games with the Pens.  Kessel struggled early on in the season, but started to catch his stride once the HBK line formed.  And how about Bonino?  I forgot he existed before the HBK line was born, and he became such a crucial part of the Penguins Stanley Cup run.  If this line remains intact, it is without a doubt the most dangerous 3rd line in hockey.  Teams like to play their top defensive pairs against Sid and Geno, but it’s hard to ignore this line!  I can see Hagelin scoring 15-20 goals and tacking up about 45 points, Bonino scoring 10-15 goals with about 40 points, and Kessel scoring around 30 goals with about 65-70 points if they all remained relatively healthy.  Keep in mind Kessel will see plenty of time on the power play, and his playmaking abilities are definitely overlooked.  We all know Phil Kessel the American sniper, but the man can pass pretty well too.

Line 4 – Kuhnhackl – Cullen – Fehr

This is a solid fourth line if you ask me.  All of these players are sound defensively, kill penalties, and 2 are centers in Cullen and Fehr.  In addition, this line can chip in offensively here and there.  Matt Cullen was debatably the bargain of the year last year, putting up a 16-16-32 stat line in 82 games as a 39-year-old fourth line center.  Cullen’s production will drop, no doubt, but his strong faceoff ability and leadership  will absolutely help this team.  I still believe Cullen can put up around 10 goals and 25 points.  Kuhnhackl is a great fourth line guy, and I absolutely love the way he plays.  He has a quick release and scored on a ton of one-timers set up mostly by Cullen.  I think Kuhnhackl has a similar stat line as Cullen will this year.  Eric Fehr finishes off the fourth line.  Fehr is a big body who protects the puck beautifully and is willing to sacrifice his body on the PK.  I think Fehr’s offensive output will be slightly less than that of Cullen and Kuhnhackl, but not by much.  His value to the team lies elsewhere.

Extras – Sundqvist – Wilson

Remember Scott Wilson?  He actually played on the first line with Sidney Crosby for while and performed well, but then suffered a season-ending injury.  Wilson will absolutely be seen in the NHL this year, but I think he starts on the bench to begin the season.  As for Sundqvist, he unfortunately was demoted due to the fact that Cullen resigned with the Penguins for one more year.  Sundqvist has fourth line potential, and will most definitely take over this roll next year.  That being said, he will also start as an extra, but you can bet he will be the first off the bench if any centers get injured.

Here is a summary of my approximate goal, assist, and point projections for all 1st-4th line players (These projections are all presuming that these players stay relatively healthy and play almost every game).

Player                         G         A         P

Sidney Crosby          35        63       98

Evgeni Malkin          39       37       78

Phil Kessel                 29       37       66

Patric Hornqvist       24       34       58

Carl Hagelin               17        25       42

Nick Bonino                13        28       41

Bryan Rust                  17        21        38

Chris Kunitz                15       23        38

Conor Sheary              12       24        36

Matt Cullen                 12        13         25

Tom Kuhnhackl          10        9          19

Eric Fehr                        8         10        18

Call me crazy, but I think the Penguins have the forward depth and skill to make another run for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Can they do it?!  Only time will tell.

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