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.
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?
After five young prospects were called up due to Pittsburgh injuries, and demonstrated they could contribute (some all the way to the Stanley Cup final), the handful of available roster jobs will be hotly contested.
Assuming Mike Sullivan leaves the speedy and productive Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel-Carl Hagelin line together; Pittsburgh’s head coach will have some interesting decisions to make, ones that won’t be made until training camp.
If he keeps Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the middle, each of them will have at least one young winger on his line. If aging LW Chris Kunitz gets one last season with Crosby and Patric Hornqvist, Malkin will probably have two young linemates. RW Bryan Rust, who played some with the big Russian in the second half and post-season, might be joined by Jake Guentzel, who compiled an eye-opening 14 points in 10 AHL playoff games as a straight-out-of-college rookie pro.
That would most likely leave veteran Eric Fehr centering the fourth line between industrious, physical RW Tom Kühnhackl and pesky mighty mite Conor Sheary, a consummate, versatile team-first player who got minutes last season on the first and fourth lines.
If Sullivan goes with Plan B and slots Malkin on Crosby’s right side (which he will surely do for portions of the season), that increases the chances that Hornqvist shifts to Sid’s left, the Bonino trio becomes the second line and Fehr centers the third line, likely between Rust and Kunitz.
The fourth line would probably feature strapping shutdown center Oskar Sundqvist between Kühnhackl and Sheary, forcing Guentzel to begin the season in the AHL with other promising prospect forwards Scott Wilson, Daniel Sprong and Dominic Simon.
Sprong might have been the best player at Pittsburgh’s main training camp a year ago, and would appear to have a bright future as a sniping RW once he demonstrates adequate defensive play. If he has a second consecutive impressive camp, the Dutch youngster could easily replace Rust on Malkin’s right side.
Sprong’s fate, and that of other contenders, will depend – at least to begin the season – on how various forwards look at one of the most competitive training camps in the NHL.
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