After winning the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in franchise history last June, the Pittsburgh Penguins' offseason was incredibly quiet for that of a champion in the salary cap era. Pittsburgh returns 19 of the 20 players dressed in the final game of the playoffs for the 2016-17 season -- the only loss was middle-pair defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who departed as a free agent to New Jersey.
With so much of the same gang that won the Cup back together, the Pens are loaded up and ready to take on a mission that hasn’t been accomplished in the NHL in almost 20 years: repeat as champions.
How does the goaltending situation shake out between the upstart Matt Murray and the established Marc-Andre Fleury?
Is the key to the "HBK" line staying together actually the play of the other two scoring lines?
What does the first full season have in store for coach Mike Sullivan?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
The Penguins' key players don’t suffer any major injuries and they power the team easily into the playoffs. Kris Letang figures into the Norris trophy conversation again with another monster year in terms of points scored and minutes played. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby duel with other stars around the league for the scoring title. Phil Kessel improves on his 26-goal season from last year.
Pittsburgh enters the playoffs with momentum and probably another date with the Washington Capitals at some point in the first two rounds. They find a way to survive again by still having better depth to move deeper into the playoffs. Eventually the Pens meet and defeat the Western Conference champions to become back-to-back Stanley Cup champions and further cement the legacy and glory of the Crosby/Malkin era.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
Mike Sullivan’s messages fall on deaf ears and the team has a meandering season. Injuries strike and rob the team of the depth that has been such an important key to success. The Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line doesn’t show the same magic and is broken up, or forced to be broken up due to Crosby and Malkin not receiving enough support and production from lesser wingers. Matt Murray’s hand injury takes longer to heal than expected and Fleury’s concussion woes aren’t behind him. The team bumbles around and barely qualifies for the playoffs, then has to meet the No. 1 seed Capitals, who finally get over the mountain by beating their rivals in Pittsburgh.
There are plenty of factors or elements that could go wrong in a long hockey season, and the Penguins certainly won’t be immune from questions or worries about how difficult it is to go all the way to the top of the proverbial mountain as champions.