It’s improbable, almost unthinkable for a team in today’s NHL to repeat as Stanley Cup champion. Even more unlikely when the team’s best defenseman goes down with an injury before the end of the regular season, the starting goaltender is injured 10-minutes before the playoffs begin, and the captain sustains a concussion during the most pivotal playoff series.
But here we are: The Pittsburgh Penguins are the champs once again.
Every time the Pens were counted out this season, they went ahead and proved everyone wrong, myself included, sort of. So since the Penguins have become so good at pulling off the improbable, it’s only right that we make improbable claims on their behalf:
The Penguins are going to three-peat.
The Pens have been the two-time defending champs for about 36 hours, so yeah, it’s probably a little early to look ahead to next season — it’s possible some of the players haven’t even slept yet. The Cup has a full summer of pool parties and random adventures with the team ahead, including the parade Wednesday, so we’re all going to enjoy it just fine.
But the oddsmakers in Vegas waste no time, and they agree: The Pens are the team to beat again next season.
It hasn’t happened in over 30 years, when the New York Islanders won four-straight Cups from 1980 to ’84; but much like this season, the Pens will have all their key players back next season — including Kris Letang, whose return will sure up the Pens’ only real weakness throughout this postseason — with more help on the way from the farm system. This team just won a Cup and next year they are expected to be better. Fans of other teams around the league are just going to love hearing that.
It won’t be easy — winning two surely wasn’t — but here are five ways they can do it all again, again.
1. Fix the defense.
This seems like a no-brainer.
We’ll skip over the return of Letang and what that means, because everyone knows what he brings to the table and what the playoff run was like this year without him. Right of the bat, fixing the defense starts with re-signing Justin Schultz. It doesn’t matter what the price tag is, just do it.
Schultz was phenomenal in the playoffs for the Penguins. His 13 points in 21 games led all defensemen, including seven that came on the power play, and two game-winning goals. He wasn’t Kris Letang, but he was Kris Letang-esque, and that was obviously enough to get the job done for Pittsburgh. And now he’s about to get paid.
The Penguins are going to need more than just Schultz to sure up the back line, and general manager Jim Rutherford is going to have to keep that in mind when balancing the cap. Ron Hainsey, Trevor Daley and Mark Streit are all unrestricted free agents the Penguins probably will not re-sign. It’ll be on Rutherford to find some replacements who can upgrade the defense without breaking the bank, on top of bringing back Schultz.
2. While we’re talking free agents, bring back Chris Kunitz.
Given the 37-year-old winger wants to return, the Pens should find a place for him. Sure, he’s lost more than a step. His regular season was pretty bad. But when playoff time rolled around, 2017 Chris Kunitz morphed into 2009 Chris Kunitz and hit everything that moved.
When we look back on this Cup run years from now, his double-overtime goal in Game 7 against Ottawa will be one of the key moments.
Four Cup rings might be enough for Kunitz to hang up the skates. He’s done just about everything there is to do in the game, but if he’s not quite done yet, and the price is right, he’s exactly the type of player a team needs to win in the postseason.
3. Tristan Jarry and Daniel Sprong will be as good as advertised.
It was pretty evident all along that the net was going to be Matt Murray’s next season, and Marc-Andre Fleury symbolically drove that point home during the Cup celebration. But the Pens are going to need a backup, and the next man up is Tristan Jarry.
Jarry is only 22, but won 28 games to go along with a .925 save-percentage at Wilkes-Barre this past season. Jarry always figured to replace Fleury at some point, just not as the backup, and not this soon. Because of Murray, Jarry doesn’t have to be as good as Fleury was right away, or as good as Murray is now, as the goalie controversies in Pittsburgh can finally stop. Jarry shouldn’t come anywhere close to playing as many games as either of those two did this past season, so he just has to be good enough to win a few more games than he loses, which would be more than fine.
It’s a low-pressure situation for Daniel Sprong, as well.
He wasn’t even close to ready when he played 18 games for the Pens as an 18-year-old during the 2015-16 season. His offensive ability has long been good enough for the NHL, it’s just everything else that goes into being a professional hockey player that needed work. Since his short stint in Pittsburgh, the Penguins’ second-round pick in 2015 has been absolutely destroying the junior ranks. This season Sprong, now 20, tallied 32 goals in 31 regular season games, then added nine more in 12 playoff games.
More proof the scoring ability is certainly alive and well; just look at this shot:
The defensive side of his game is coming around, too. Sprong was a combined minus-50 in first three seasons of junior hockey, but this past season he finished a plus-29. It’s safe to assume he’s ready.
While scoring goals is the least of the Penguins’ concerns heading into next season, Sprong is going to give that area a boost anyway. And if Sprong’s all-around game has truly improved as much as it seems in the junior ranks, he could provide an immediate impact to the Pens’ depth at forward, bolstering the strongest part of their team.
4. Mike Sullivan
All he has to do is show up for opening night and the Penguins will three-peat.
Okay, fine, he’ll need to do a little more than that, given his team will be rolling on fumes again next season after another short summer.
But no other coach can push the buttons the way Sullivan can, and every move he makes turns out to be the right one. He’s the best coach in the league right now, and the best coach in Penguins history. He’s that good. If the Pens are going to pull off a three-peat, best believe Sullivan will once again have his fingerprints all over it.
5. The stars align again
This one isn’t about luck, it’s about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
It all starts and ends with these two, the best one-two punch in the NHL in years. Both are in their prime and, ultimately, their presence alone gives the Penguins their most realistic shot at a three-peat over any other discernible reason we could possibly come up with.
If Geno can keep racking up the points in the playoffs like he does, we already know Sid is going to come back as the best all-around player in the world again. So why not?
Why not? That’s been the mantra for this group all along, and you have to figure it’s going to carry over again to next season.