As a part of the SB Nation NHL preview, every year we're tasked with three questions to answer for the Pittsburgh Penguins season. 2016-17 doesn't feature a ton of drama or intrigue for the Pens - almost all the pieces are still in place from last year, all there is to do is line up and play and see what crazy twists and turns the season has in store for the black and gold.
1) How does the goaltending situation shake out between the upstart Matt Murray and the established Marc-Andre Fleury?
Last spring saw an awkward changing of the guard for the Pens. Marc-Andre Fleury was injured on March 31st with his second concussion of the season and unable to play at the beginning of the playoffs and top prospect Matt Murray stepped in and led the Pens all the way to the Stanley Cup. Instantly questions swirled about the future for Fleury, holder of every major team record in goal, and undisputed starter in Pittsburgh for the past decade.
But a funny thing happened over the summer, there was no trade of Fleury made, nor did it seem that the Penguins ever really got close to pulling the trigger on shipping out their veteran goalie. Fleury, for his part, did not demand a trade and stated his desire to stay in Pittsburgh with a chance to recapture his #1 job, but acknowledging the reality that his days of starting 60+ games were done with the emergence of Murray.
The fog hanging over the whole situation is next summer's Las Vegas expansion draft. Fleury, by virtue of the no movement clause in his contract and NHL rules, must be protected from the draft, which would expose Murray to be selected by the expansion team with no compensation for Pittsburgh. Most in the know still fully expect the Pens to have to trade Fleury by June because of expansion.
However, for now, Pittsburgh still has 2 solid, starting-caliber goalies going into the 2016-17 NHL regular season, in a year where they would like to contend for the Stanley Cup again. Any team would love to have that kind of depth in the net. It wouldn't be shocking to see either Fleury or Murray start 30-50 games this season, and if no further injuries happen, even come out about even on playing time. What remains totally murky at this point is who the #1 goalie would be for Game 1 of the 2017 playoffs, but the friendly competition can only benefit the Pens overall performance.
2) Is the key to the "HBK" line staying together actually the play of the other 2 scoring lines?
Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel formed a dynamic offensive line for the Pens, often getting weaker defensive matchups as opponents had to focus on the lines of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
This talent-split works so long as the support players to Crosby and Malkin like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary are able to be productive and allow more traditional scoring line wingers like Hagelin and Kessel to remain on a "3rd" line.
If Sheary (who only has 3 assists in 44 NHL regular season games) or the 38 year old Chris Kunitz can't help Crosby enough, it hurts the team. Rust has been out all camp with injury, others like Scott Wilson and Patric Hornqvist will be called on in support of Malkin.
A major key to the Penguins victory was spreading talent across 3 lines and feasting on the benefits of depth, but in order to keep that as an advantage there can't be any letdown. A potential problem staring the Penguins in the face would be having to make lineup switches when mis-cast scoring line wingers aren't scoring enough over the course of a long season.
Come playoff time it would be wise to enact the mindset of using the Pens depth against other strong teams, but diluting the talent around Crosby and Malkin isn't probably a wise strategy in the course of an 82 game regular season where it would be more useful to load up the talent over traditional 2-scoring lines and take down some of the league's weaker teams who can't match that skill.
3) What does the first full season have in store for coach Mike Sullivan?
Mike Sullivan is running his first NHL training camp since 2005, and it'll be his first full season in the big show since that same season. His message worked last year and he pushed all the right buttons for a team that needed a new direction and focus.
But now that they're on the top of the proverbial mountain and the hunters have become the hunted and all those other cliches, we'll see how much staying power Sullivan has as an NHL coach. He still is a relatively inexperienced NHL head coach with just 218 regular season games.
Of course, he's not all that inexperienced, being as he's been an assistant for many years and, oh yeah, is coming off a Stanley Cup win that means way more than the total number of games coached.
Sullivan's success last year was the result of his message, directness and aggressive tactics. He's said he fully intends to keep that up from the beginning to the end of the season. Can the players hold up? Will they be able to execute as cleanly as last year and buy in to the message so much?
Tactically it will be interesting to watch Sullivan as injuries strike and how he chooses to arrange his lineup every night. And, like question one says, he's eventually going to have to choose a goalie to ride with again as well. Key decisions await for the chance of further glory.