Matt Murray is the hottest young goaltending prospect in the NHL.
Successfully defending a Stanley Cup championship is harder than it’s ever been since the NHL instituted a salary cap.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, however, are positioned to do just that.
At this point, it looks like every player who hoisted the venerable mug only two months ago will return for another crack at it except for blueliner Ben Lovejoy and goalie Jeff Zatkoff as well as forwards Beau Bennett, Matt Cullen and Pascal Dupuis, none of them core players for the defending champs.
The first three have signed elsewhere as UFAs, while the 40-year-old Cullen is unsigned and unlikely to return to cap-challenged Pittsburgh. Dupuis will likely never play again due to blood clots and is expected to be placed on long-term injured reserve to get the Penguins under the cap maximum to start the season.
The defense, last season’s Achilles Heel until healed on the fly by GM Jim Rutherford, is pretty much set, but the competition in goal and up front will be fierce.
Matt Murray, who still qualifies as a rookie, seized the No. 1 job from the injured Marc-Andre Fleury and refused to surrender it, backstopping Pittsburgh to a championship as his veteran counterpart watched from the bench.
Assuming Murray can continue his prodigious feats of the past two seasons, first in the AHL and then the NHL, he and his $894,166 cap hit for one more season would have a clear edge over Fleury and his $5.75-million annual hit for three years, particularly since Pittsburgh's cap crunch is dire, and only one of the two goalies can be shielded from the expansion draft.
The proud Fleury, who’s just 31, had a good season – especially early when Pittsburgh’s offense unexpectedly evaporated. Fleury will not lose the starter’s job without a battle, ensuring good play in the Penguins’ net until one of them departs.
Young prospects Tristan JarryTristan Jarry, Sean Maguire and 2016 second-rounder Filip Gustavsson should percolate below for most of the coming season at the least.
Kris Letang and Olli Maatta will likely again form the top pairing, followed by 2016 acquisition Trevor Daley and homegrown rookie Brian Dumoulin, a much-needed stabilizer on the second pairing.
Rutherford let the pedestrian Lovejoy walk and signed once-prized prospect Justin Schultz to a one-year, $1.4-million cap hit, a big step down from his previous deal. With a higher ceiling than Lovejoy and a new team-friendly contract, Schultz has one season to prove his worth, a season that buys time for highly skilled yet slow-to-develop prospect Derrick Pouliot to show enough to earn a decent contract and a spot on the Steeltown blueline once his entry-level deal expires at the end of the season. If Pouliot is ready for the NHL at some point this season, and Schultz is playing even respectably, the former Oiler could become a trade chip.
Will this be the season that ultra-skilled D-Man Derrick Pouliot finally sticks with the NHL Penguins?
Youngsters Ethan Prow and Lukas Bengtsson will evolve at lower levels.
After five young prospects were called