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Loss leader: How much will veteran defection hurt the Penguins next year?

Taking stock of early free agency and the 6 key players who have moved on. Is this going to be a big deal for the chemistry and performance of the Penguins next season?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In a way, fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins were spoiled in 2016-17. The only players who got their names engraved on the Stanley Cup from the 2015-16 team who were gone for the quest to repeat were peripheral parts in Ben Lovejoy (free agency) and Eric Fehr (traded). The Pens had a remarkable amount of stability from the 2016 Cup team and that played a huge part in a Cup team for 2017.

But in a salary cap world nothing lasts forever, and boy that sure hit home this off-season. First, Marc-Andre Fleury got selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. On July 1st at the start of free agency the Pens watched as they lost Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey all to other teams on lucrative contracts. Matt Cullen remains a free agent and it's currently unknown if he will retire, return, or chose a different team.

Those 5 players (6 if Cullen doesn't come back) all played key roles in the playoff run. Many have worn alternate captain letters, all were veteran players and known as solid teammates and leaders in their own right. Some have been around for years and years. And now they're gone. To this point the only external additions to the roster have been defenseman Matt Hunwick and forward Ryan Reaves. Big inequity in what went out, and what's gone in, and not for the better.

The blogophere can be a little cruel to the advantages of "intangibles", "leadership", "presence", "the it factor", whatever you want to call it. For good reason, it's impossible to quantify and chart out team chemistry. Reasonably, it stands to figure the longer a team can gel together (especially when they experience success) it will forge bonds and be beneficial. It may not be quantifiable and it sure isn't even an automatic indicator for success, but it still counts for a large part of a team with the way they are constructed and how all the pieces come together.

Obviously, with all this change, the 2017-18 Penguins will start a new chapter of the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era. The departures of fellow three-time Cup winners in Kunitz and Fleury will change team makeup and composition on and off the ice. On one hand, change is inevitable in a league like the NHL where frequent personnel movement is simply the nature of the business of hockey.

And, that's what free agency in a cap world is. The Penguins had a lot of good players, but some as individuals had the opportunity to cash in. Natural to happen. Fact of life to happen. No way around it.

The question becomes, how will the current core pick up the pieces of the departed and move on while they still have relative youth and a solid core on their side?

It's tough to answer right now - general manager Jim Rutherford has openly admitted what everyone knows - they need a 3rd line center and will probably make a trade sooner or later to find one. Who will it be and when will it happen and what will the price be to get it? On July 3rd, that's all unknown. But Rutherford isn't in a hurry.

"I think it’s important now that we don’t panic and go after somebody just to say we got a center," Rutherford said. "I’ve talked to the coach [Mike Sullivan] about this. He says as long as I’ve got my two big guys healthy, I can work around anything early in the season."

This is reasonable, the regular season doesn't start until October and the games don't really start to matter until next April. As coach Mike Sullivan said above, he is content with the baseline of what he has to work with, since that is Sid and Geno. To say nothing of Matt Murray, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, Justin Schultz, Conor Sheary, Kris Letang, and so on. Based on that Sullivan is already in great shape to start the regular season. A team as talented as Pittsburgh can figure out the rest along the way, rather than overpay in a trade or free agency. This is a very prudent discourse and one that should be a positive given the circumstances.

It didn't make sense for the Penguins to match any contract that their departing free agents received. The Pens are better off than trying a fruitless and impossible effort of keeping the whole band together. That just wasn't going to happen, and the current overall group of  the 2-time champions, has had their window close. Rewarding as it's been, nothing lasts forever and we're seeing that now with major roster turnover.

That isn't to say all hope is lost, because it certainly isn't. As Mario Lemieux said on the ice after a Cup win last year with a wink and a smile, "as long as you've got Sid and Geno, you've got a chance". Those guys are obviously the most important factors and they're not going anywhere.

Plus, as we've seen first-hand, veteran voices aren't simply the sole determining key to success. Bill Guerin and Sergei Gonchar (two great players and leaders) couldn't prevent the Pens from falling to Montreal in 2010 - and then both of them were gone after that. The Pens floundered for years to come following that turnover of key veterans (throw notable beloved guys like Mike Rupp and Ruslan Fedotenko too) and change is nothing new. Though of course factors like injuries had something to do with the meandering period of 2010-15.

With star players like Crosby, Malkin and Letang mainly known as "lead by example" players, it's fair to wonder how the locker-room will be next season and where core, overall and group leadership will come from. And if it will actually be meaningful in those tough moments when Fleury's not around to pickup for a Murray injury or Kunitz isn't there to score a double-OT goal or Daley/Hainsey aren't around to eat 20 minutes and keep the team afloat. There's a lot of questions and holes, and early in the off-season no answers except for the realization that things won't quite be the same for the playoffs in 2018 as it was so successfully proven in 2016 or 2017.

Pittsburgh still has their most important pieces in place, but these past few weeks have seen critical veteran players and voices depart. A key factor should be having Sullivan, who has proven to be a sensational leader of men for this group and is clearly able to get results. But it's worth wondering about when the going gets tough and answers have to come from within, will the players have the gumption, presence and poise - that "it factor" to be able step up and answer the bell? Even if you can't quantify "it", it's clear there's going to be a different mojo and chemistry in the room.

Perhaps new voices lead the way. Maybe, quite frankly Sid and Geno (with help from the will of proven performers like Kessel, Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust) are powerful enough to have the team carry the day. But it's evident a lot of the "heart and soul" factor has vanished when suddenly Kunitz, Fleury, Bonino, Daley and Hainsey aren't going to be around next season. The loss will be steeper still should Cullen join the list.

Will be curious to see the poll and comments - are you really concerned about the current makeup of the Pens after early free agency? Or is the remaining, formidable core enough to alleviate concerns for now?