By Isabelle Khurshudyan, The Washington Post
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the first day of training camp, Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan addressed this Pittsburgh team’s long odds. It had been nearly two decades since any NHL team repeated as a Stanley Cup champion, and it had never happened in the salary cap era. Even the Chicago Blackhawks, three-time winners with a core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith hadn’t managed to win in back-to-back years.
But Sullivan didn’t see a reason why the Penguins couldn’t do it, especially considering the roster experienced little turnover from the 2016 championship team. Seeds of doubt could’ve been planted when injuries piled up, particularly the loss of top defenseman Kris Letang. But after the Penguins made history with a no-name blue line that is arguably the least impressive to ever win a Stanley Cup, Pittsburgh has shown anything is possible.
So, will Sullivan give next season’s Pittsburgh team the same spiel and use the possibility of a three-peat as motivation?
“I don’t know, we’ve got to rethink that,” Sullivan said. “We’ll probably sit in the summertime and try to figure out a way to inspire this group again.”
Sullivan said that entering this season, he and his coaching staff predicted some of the challenges Pittsburgh would have in its repeat bid, starting with a short offseason after playing until mid-June. To go along with that, several Penguins players participated in the World Cup of Hockey before the season. As the reigning champions, Pittsburgh was also a team that got its opponent’s best effort in every game. Letang’s neck injury then left the team without one of the league’s best offensive defensemen and forced the Penguins to go with a blue-line-by-committee approach in the playoffs.
There have been five three-peats in NHL history, and the last team to do so was the New York Islanders, when they won four titles in a row from 1980 to 1983. According to Bovada, the Penguins are early favorites to win again next season with 9-1 odds.
The main characters will stay the same with captain Sidney Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin, Letang and winger Phil Kessel. But 12 players are up for new contracts with six players entering unrestricted free agency.
Chris Kunitz, a three-time Stanley Cup-champion, seems unlikely to be back at 37 years old. This also likely marked 40-year-old center Matt Cullen’s last NHL game. Center Nick Bonino may also depart in free agency, leaving the Penguins with considerable holes in their bottom-six, a strength of the team’s balanced lineup. Carter Rowney played regularly this postseason, and young center Oskar Sundqvist could also be in line for a bigger role. Rookie forward Jake Guentzel, who led Pittsburgh in goal-scoring this postseason, played half of the year in the American Hockey League, and he’ll likely get a regular NHL role next season.
On the blue line, Pittsburgh could lose Trevor Daley, who averaged more than 20 minutes per game this season. The goaltending tandem will see change with Marc-Andre Fleury reportedly agreeing to waive his no-move clause for the expansion draft so that the Penguins can protect 23-year-old starter Matt Murray.
“You know, when we went to the Final in 2008 and then won in 2009, then you think that we’re going to do this a lot,” Fleury said. “All of this time in-between, it was tough and it was frustrating to not bring another championship, you know? But I think we learned from that. I’m glad we still had the same group of guys altogether.”
Any three-peat bid would feature a slightly altered core, one that now includes Murray and young forwards Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust. But if Pittsburgh could repeat this season with a banged-up roster and one of the hardest paths to the final series, the Penguins have earned the right to be considered favorites again next season, when the team could cement its status as one of the NHL’s great dynasties.
“I’m sure down the road, people will look back and put us wherever they want to put us,” Cullen said.
“We set out to try to go back-to-back,” Crosby said. “We knew it was going to be difficult, but I think that’s probably where the most joy comes out of, is just knowing how difficult it is now to go back-to-back and knowing that we overcame all those things. It’s a pretty special group.”