It’s no secret that Pittsburgh is coming into this 2017-18 season lacking a lot of its storied veterans that played a huge role in conquering the back-to-back Stanley Cup title last June. Who could forget Chris Kunitz’s OT-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators? What would this team have done differently without the little things in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, where Matt Cullen led the Penguins to a victory simply by winning huge face-offs in his team’s own zone when he needed to? Who would’ve stepped up and scored the game-winning goal in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final to take a 1-0 series lead against the talented San Jose Sharks if it weren’t Nick Bonino?
Someone else, surely, but you can’t re-write the past. These guys cemented their moment in history, and now the team has to continue on without them.
This fact is probably going to be one of the biggest challenges Pittsburgh faces, solely because you just can’t replace the leadership of veterans Cullen and Kunitz, who were both alternate captains of the Penguins for many years. Bonino’s third-line center position will not only be extremely missed, but has shown to be the top concern, along with the 4C, in the summer to properly fill. This is even more difficult to cope with when you think about the penalty kill power, playoff experience, and poise these three guys bring down the middle to any hockey club; especially in what roles they played in both championship runs.
What’s more is Cullen was easily one of the best fourth-line centers in the NHL last year, and he basically blows the competition out of the water when compared to the average skill set of a current fourth liner. With him heading back to the Minnesota Wild, his position, as you’ve just read, has been the hardest to recover from, because no one really comes close to the production quality he has when placed on a bottom line. Fourth lines are historically known for being the enforcer line; the battering rams of the team. Cullen put up 13 goals and 18 assists last season on Pittsburgh’s fourth line. That’s how Stanley Cups are won.
The Penguins obviously still have Crosby, Malkin, and Letang to continue being leaders on the team, plus Hornqvist, who’s 30-years-old and has about 10 years of NHL experience. But this time around, their leadership will have to keep boosting the confidence of young starts like Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, who, though extremely skilled, will still need regular guidance being only a short amount of years into the NHL. Other guys on the team will certainly benefit from the leadership from their three captains as well.
Times arrow neither stands still nor reverses, it merely marches forward, and this has never be truer for the Pittsburgh Penguins.