Complete Preview and Predictions for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016-17

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistOctober 10, 2016

Complete Preview and Predictions for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016-17

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Penguins enter the 2016-17 season with high expectations after their galvanizing run to the Stanley Cup.

    The Penguins' season caught fire when coach Mike Sullivan took over from Mike Johnston in mid-December. He instituted an aggressive, high-tempo style that caught opponents by surprise and brought out the best in stars such as Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, as well as role players such as Conor Sheary, Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley.

    Now the trick is to see whether the Penguins can pick up where they left off. Captain Crosby seems to be at the peak of his game and is ably supported by Evgeni Malkin down the middle. The rest of the lineup remains largely unchanged from last spring's championship crew.

    Here's the outlook for the Pittsburgh Penguins for 2016-17.

Key Roster Changes

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Key Departures

    • Beau Bennett (RW)
    • Ben Lovejoy (D)
    • Jeff Zatkoff (G)

    Key Additions

    • None

    Overview

    The good news for Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford is he was able to keep a Cup-winning roster essentially intact during the offseason. The team lost Ben Lovejoy from the blue line, but that leaves room to integrate prospect Derrick Pouliot. Unrestricted free agents Matt Cullen and Justin Schultz were both ultimately re-signed without breaking the bank.

    Unlike other Cup-winning teams that have immediately needed to make changes to remain salary-cap compliant, Rutherford was able to retain all of his key players. Summer was a welcome respite for a man who was busy during the summer of 2015 and continued to make tweaks to his team during the 2015-16 season.

    According to General Fanager, the Penguins are $2.6 million over the salary-cap ceiling with their 23-man roster. Some paper moves should solve that problem until Pascal Dupuis' $3.75 million cap hit is moved to long-term injured reserve ahead of opening day.

Projected 2016-17 Depth Chart

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Forwards

    1. Conor Sheary, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist
    2. Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust
    3. Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel
    4. Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr
    5. Scott Wilson

         

    Defense

    1. Olli Maatta, Kris Letang
    2. Brian Dumoulin, Trevor Daley
    3. Ian Cole, Justin Schultz
    4. Derrick Pouliot

         

    Goal

    1. Marc-Andre Fleury
    2. Matt Murray

Biggest Storylines to Watch

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    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Will There Be a Stanley Cup Hangover?

    The Penguins rode a steady wave of momentum from the time Sullivan took over behind the bench in December right through to the day they hoisted the Stanley Cup.

    That led to a short summer—especially for Crosby, who also led Team Canada to victory in September's World Cup of Hockey, and the other Penguins who participated in the tournament.

    It has been nearly two decades since a team repeated as Stanley Cup champion. The last time it happened was when the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998.

    Will the Penguins be able to defy the trend by continuing their juggernaut all the way through another season?

           

    The Goaltending Duel

    The Penguins have stuck with the lineup that won them the Stanley Cup. That still leaves a logjam in net, where both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray could make a case as the team's No. 1 netminder.

    Fleury, 31, is a lifelong Penguin who won a Stanley Cup in 2009 and has three years remaining on a contract with a cap hit of $5.75 million per season.

    Murray, 22, still qualifies as an NHL rookie but showed nerves of steel while backstopping the Pens to their championship last spring.

    The younger goaltender will start the season on the injured list after breaking his hand playing for Team North America during the World Cup of Hockey, per Wes Crosby of NHL.com. One he returns, it'll be fascinating to see how Sullivan divvies up the netminding duties.

          

    Is Letang the Next Norris Heir Apparent?

    After several years of strong play, Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings took home his first Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman last June.

    Is that a story arc Letang could follow in 2016-17? Like Doughty, the 29-year-old plays huge minutes against other teams' best players and has two Stanley Cups to his credit. He's versatile on both sides of the puck and has overcome a massive health scare, suffering a stroke early in 2014.

    Letang's body of work puts him among the best in the league, but he has never finished higher than third in Norris voting. Expect to hear plenty of chatter about him if the Penguins come out of the gate strong this season.

Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario

    Over the past 18 months, Crosby has won every trophy he has competed for, starting with the 2015 IIHF World Championship in the Czech Republic and moving on to the 2016 Stanley Cup and then the World Cup of Hockey.

    The further he goes into his golden era, the easier he makes it look too. Sid has been good before, but he's at his hockey peak.

    Surrounded by a roster filled with other world-class talents, Crosby and his Penguins have a chance to become the first team in the modern salary-cap era to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. It'd be another impressive accomplishment for a player who has dealt with plenty of adversity in his career but is showing that his best could still be on the horizon.

           

    Worst-Case Scenario

    Fatigue could wear down the Penguins over the course of the season after their long run last spring. That exhaustion has the potential to cause more injuries, which could unravel the amazing chemistry that developed during the playoffs.

    Coach Sullivan dramatically exceeded expectations with his success behind the Penguins bench during the second half of 2015-16. It would be a serious letdown if the bubble bursts early in the new season.

Final Prediction

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The Penguins boast good depth at all positions, and they're reasonably healthy at the beginning of the season. They've also got the best player in the world, Crosby, leading the charge on the ice.

    More than a decade after the rivalry first began when they were rookies, Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin will return to the forefront in 2016-17. Expect to see the Penguins and Washington Capitals duke it out for top spot in the Metropolitan Division—and the Eastern Conference.

           

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com.

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