Zach Grace | Staff Writer
After back-to-back Stanley Cup winning seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ reign as champions came to an end. The Alex Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals finally managed to beat the Pens in a six-game second round series, en route to their first ever Stanley Cup win.
It was evident last season that the Penguins were exhausted from having played in consecutive Stanley Cups, and certain players competed more on top of that in tournaments such as the World Cup of Hockey (2016) and the IIHF World Championships (played annually). This season, the Penguins will look to rebound from a heartbreaking Game 6 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals.
During the offseason, the Penguins parted ways with Conor Sheary, a scoring winger who slumped last season, and under-performing defenseman Matt Hunwick, trading both players to Buffalo. Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl departed this summer too, signing deals in free agency with Anaheim and the New York Islanders, respectively.
The re-signings of top-six winger Bryan Rust, valuable depth center Riley Sheahan and reliable defenseman Jamie Oleksiak leave fans optimistic about the immediate future of the organization. Plus, former Columbus blue-liner Jack Johnson was brought in by the Penguins to help solidify the defense, and not to mention the return of beloved veteran center Matt Cullen.
Pittsburgh, as it has been ever since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in late 2015, boasts a fast, skillful team, featuring several young stars. Jake Guentzel, Rust and Dominik Simon are just a few of Pittsburgh’s most skilled young talent. Get this: At the ripe age of 23, Guentzel already has 42 points in 39 career playoff games.
The Pens also have a great farm team in the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. Wilkes-Barre has provided immense talent to its parent program in recent years, churning out other key contributors such as goalkeeper Matt Murray, winger Zach Aston-Reese and winger Daniel Sprong.
Sprong has had a couple of brief stints in the NHL, but has never played an entire season. Last season, he was able to tally three points in the eight games that he played at the NHL level. This year, however, many are expecting Sprong to finally begin the new season in Pittsburgh. At least, general manager Jim Rutherford implied as much at the conclusion of last season, saying, “He’s a very talented player that’ll score a lot of goals in this league. He’ll be a regular on our team next year.”
With yet another infusion of young talent meeting a star-studded cast in Pittsburgh, how could the Penguins not be favorites in the Eastern Conference as the 2018 season gets set to begin? Any team with All Stars Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel and arguably the greatest hockey player in the world, Sidney Crosby, figures to compete.
One could refute the case that Crosby is the best in the world, but before making any premature judgments about no. 87, just consider the following list of accolades:
Since entering the NHL in the 2005-2006 season, Crosby has won: the Mark Messier Leadership Award in 2009-2010; the Art Ross Trophy (given to the league’s leading scorer) in 2006-2007 and in 2013-2014; the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (given to the league’s leading goal scorer) in 2009-2010 and in 2016-2017; the Ted Lindsay Award (given to the league’s most outstanding player) in 2006-2007, 2012-2013 and in 2013-2014; the Hart Memorial Trophy (given to the player most valuable to his team) in 2006-2007 and in 2013-2014; the Conn Smythe Trophy (given to the most valuable player in the league during the Stanley Cup Playoffs) in 2015-2016 and in 2016-2017; and finally, three Stanley Cup victories.
Outside of his NHL career, Crosby has won the World Cup of Hockey (2016), two Olympic gold medals (2010 and 2014), as well as a gold medal in the World Junior Championships and the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Championship.
As long as no. 87 is on the ice in a black and gold uniform, the Pittsburgh Penguins should always be a significant team within the National Hockey League.
Don’t expect this year to be any different.