The Pittsburgh Penguins officially get underway today on the ice for the start of training camp ahead of their 2016-17 season. With the World Cup of Hockey there will be several notable absences with 6 of their best players (plus head coach Mike Sullivan) not in town for the first day.
Still, that's about all there is for drama. Barring injuries, one can almost absolutely set the Pens roster in stone for what it will look like coming out of camp for Game 1 against the Washington Capitals:
Forwards (13): Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Matt Cullen, Tom Kuhnhackl, Eric Fehr, Scott Wilson
Defenseman (7): Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole, Justin Schultz, Derrick Pouliot
Goaltenders (2): Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury
That much is known, there aren't really any spots up for winning, or surprises that will happen from a personnel standpoint, again with the injury disclaimer. But, as always, there will be a few stories and individuals to watch as training camp goes on.
#1: Trying to repeat means a short summer and everyone's best shot
The good: Pittsburgh is in an excellent situation to attempt to defend their title, bringing back their top 14 scorers from last season and both goalies.
The bad: The Pens will be the measuring stick for every other team across the league, get everyone's best shot, and they've also had a short summer that's been compounded by World Cup duty by most their best players.
The Pens are hungry to try and win another Stanley Cup before next summer ushers in several changes based on the 9 of the 22 players mentioned above set to be free agents in some form (restricted or unrestricted) plus the expansion draft looming that will necessitate the trade of Fleury by next June.
No matter what shakes out, the Penguins window to win more Stanley Cups won't be closed for good after 2016-17, but make no mistake this is the last chance for this exact group of players.
#2: Who's the man in net?
So far the Pens have managed egos well. Fleury's been the franchise goalie who's played 60+ games in 7 of 9 full seasons in the past decade, and only failing to when he's been injured (like last season's 58 game campaign).
If Fleury at age 31 is the old bull, Murray is the young calf (to steal a phrase from Step Brothers). We all know the 22-year old is the future, and the future is now after Murray won 15 playoff games last spring, posting a .923 save percentage along the way.
Either goalie could start in the 30-50 game range, depending on performance and injury. And both, perhaps, have injury concerns. After being so durable since 2008, Fleury suffered two concussions in 4 months last season, the latter opening the door for Murray to play in the playoffs. Murray, for his part, also had a concussion late last season and jammed a thumb in the WCOH. Murray's played just 48 and 65 total games in his first two professional seasons and he still has yet to prove he is a true franchise goalie.
It's a later problem that will probably sort itself out, but the Penguins right now don't really know who their opening night starter is, let alone who their go-to guy in the playoffs will be. Each goalie could be capable, each goalie has a reasonable case, but yet each of them also has some unknowns heading into the season.
#3: Health and linemates of Geno
Evgeni Malkin, while brilliant when he's played, has been on the shelf often. He's missed 18%+ of 6 of the last 8 seasons including 25, 13, 22 and 17 games in the past four seasons. Further, he's coming off playing injured in the playoffs and was close to a 50/50 shot for having an off-season surgery before avoiding the knife.
Early returns haven't been that encouraging as Malkin has looked sluggish and not been a difference maker at the WCOH. Some fans have made baseless speculations that he's less than 100% based off the eye test. That could be true, but this wrist shot yesterday on Tuukka Rask looked pretty strong to beat a good goalie short-side off a bad angle.
With a shot like @malkin71_'s, just let it rip. #WCH2016 pic.twitter.com/Bnlrq3FY3w— #WCH2016 (@NHL) September 22, 2016
Aside from Malkin's health, the personnel issues look to hinder him more than most. If the talent stays spread across 3 lines (aka HBK stays together), Malkin won't have quality, skilled linemates. With Crosby likely to retain Hornqvist, Malkin will have the likes of a grab-bag consisting of Rust, Fehr, Wilson and Sheary/Kunitz (none particularly good scorers at the NHL level in 2016-17) as his wingers. Not exactly the best options for a now 30 year old Geno who could use a legit top-6 skill winger, and probably won't have a lot to work with.
#4: What's the 3rd pair defense?
The "Derrick Pouliot is turning heads" campaign has been in effect since early this summer. The now 3rd year pro hasn't been able to find much traction in the NHL lineup, despite some gaudy possession numbers. Can he make Sullivan have to play him?
Pouliot's postulated he could play on his off-side, potentially opening him up to beat Schultz or Cole for a lineup spot. The Pens probably need to find out, sink or swim, if Pouliot is going to be a viable player in the NHL, and the youngster has paid his dues and probably deserves the chance too.
Pittsburgh could go:
Cole-Schultz (worked as a 3rd pair in the playoffs, and both players - while limited- seemed to exhibit a good chemistry and working relatiionship)
Pouliot-Schultz (all offense, high-octane type of pairing that would be fine when the Pens had the puck, but scary when they didnt)
Cole-Pouliot (if the Pens want to keep Cole in as a PKer and think Pouliot offers enough on his off-side to see how things go)
Injuries can and will shape this but which of the 3 players earn the 2 jobs open will be something to keep an eye on.
#5 Sullivan's first full season
Sullivan pushed all the right buttons, getting the Pens to score 3.3 goals per game (highest in league) and increasing the Corsi For % an impressive 5.42% compared to under Mike Johnston.
However, after Johnston stumbled and his message went stale, it would have been relatively easily for simply a voice of change to bring positive change.
Sullivan did much more than just be a different voice, his message and decisions boosted the Penguins all the way to the Cup. But now the roles have changed. The hunters will become the hunted (as mentioned in point #1 above). How does Sullivan change his tactics now that his team has already clawed up the mountain? While he's the apple of everyone's eye now, Sullivan hasn't exactly been that accomplished of a coach prior to the past year. Does he continue to thrive or regress? The Pens 2016-17 season will be impacted big time by the answer.