PITTSBURGH – The chance to make history doesn’t come up in the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room. It doesn’t have to.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company understand the stakes: no team since the New York Islanders of the early 1980s has won three straight Stanley Cups, something the Penguins can do if they can navigate the next nine months with the combination of grit and talent they’ve mustered each of the last two springs.
Yet it’s not that opportunity that is providing the fuel for what the Penguins hope is another short summer in 2018 following another parade through downtown Pittsburgh. They want to win the Cup every year. Thinking this winter might be different just because their names take up a significant portion of their league’s most cherished piece of hardware is silly.
“I think you have to prove it every year,” Crosby said. “Nobody gives you anything. Just because you were able to do something before it doesn’t guarantee anything for next year. We have to have that mindset and we did lose a number of guys.”
Beloved goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, is now with expansion Vegas. Center Matt Cullen, nicknamed “Dad” for the 40-year-old’s paternal presence, is playing one final season back home in Minnesota. Chris Kunitz, who carved out a niche for his ability to create havoc around the net, is in Florida. Third-line center Nick Bonino and his intelligent two-way play is in Nashville. Defenseman Trevor Daley, whose steadiness helped keep the blue line together after Kris Letang was forced to miss the second half of last season with health issues, is in Detroit.
The Penguins doubled down in the summer of 2016, bringing back nearly every piece of a championship team. Not this time.
“Yes, we’ve lost a ton of great guys on and off the ice personality wise,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “But the ability to bring young guys in and assimilate them quickly I think is very key for our team culture and we’ve done that and we’ll continue to do that.”
Jake Guentzel was a revelation as a rookie last season, leading the NHL in playoff goals while developing an immediate chemistry with Crosby. Conor Sheary has won it all twice. So have defensemen Olli Matta and Justin Schultz, all of them 26 or younger.
Keeping the edge needed to navigate the grind of 82 regular-season games and up to another two dozen in the playoffs can be difficult. That’s what Penguins coach Mike Sullivan believes separates his group from others.
“I think the fact this team has won two championships back-to-back should just fuel our passion even more to do it again,” he said.
Some things to look for as the Penguins eye the NHL’s first three-peat of Crosby’s lifetime.
Pittsburgh brought in forward Ryan Reaves from St. Louis in an effort to provide a physical presence the team hopes deters opponents from making runs at Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. While Malkin pointed out he can fend for himself, Reaves understands his job, one he intends to do with a sense of humor. Asked what he brings to the table, Reaves – who had 27 goals and 695 penalty minutes in seven seasons in St. Louis – couldn’t resist.
“They’re excited there’s definitely going to be a lot more goals scored, I know (they) were struggling with that,” he said with a laugh.
Fleury’s departure leaves Murray as the team’s fully entrenched No. 1 goaltender since he made his debut during the 2015-16 season. Murray considers Crosby and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady role models in terms of mental preparation and focus.
“(Brady) is so much more than a quarterback and I want to be so much more than a goalie,” Murray said.
Antti Niemi will serve as the backup following a bumpy season in Dallas last year when he finished just 12-12-4 with a 3.30 goals against average.
Letang watched Pittsburgh’s Cup run from the press box after undergoing neck surgery in April. He’s missed at least 10 games in each of the last six seasons. If he’s able to stay on the ice, the Penguins have one of the league’s elite defenders who has the speed and hockey IQ to make a massive impact on both ends of the ice.
Who’s on third
Bonino’s exit leaves a hole at third-line center, one general manager Jim Rutherford is in no hurry to fill. Given Sullivan’s penchant for frequently tinkering with lines in an effort to find a spark, whoever gets the nod probably shouldn’t get comfortable. Given the firepower on the top two lines, Pittsburgh can get by in the short term and give Rutherford time to find an answer on the open market if necessary.