Pittsburgh Penguins: Looking at Teams Who Could Threaten the Three-peat

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: General manager Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins attends the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: General manager Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins attends the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Penguins have already done the unprecedented: won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era.

Part of what made these consecutive victories so remarkable is the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to keep their roster relatively intact between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. But all that has changed for the 2017-18 Penguins. They’ve lost Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey in free agency—not to mention the loss of Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft. Next year’s roster is going to be very different from the one that won the 2017 Stanley Cup.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins /

Pittsburgh Penguins

But that doesn’t mean that a “three-peat” is impossible. The Penguins have suffered losses, true, but no other team in the league has really stepped up to become a threat in next year’s playoffs.

Rationalizing Pens’ Losses

Like a lot of teams, the Penguins have lost a good number of players this offseason. But it wouldn’t have been worth the money to re-sign them. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford made the smart move to walk away instead of overpaying.

Chicago, for example, has made headlines recently by re-acquiring Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp. Both players were with the Blackhawks for their most recent Cup victories. On the flip side of that, Chicago has struggled with room under the salary cap for years. By not re-signing their UFAs, the Penguins have a good $10 million under the cap. (Chicago, by the way, has exactly zero dollars under the cap.) 

That means that even after signing RFAs Brian Dumoulin and Conor Sheary, Rutherford will still have money to work with to upgrade the third-line center position. Rutherford also can still make a trade from the team’s current prospective depth in goal and on the wing if more money is needed.

Eastern Conference Enemies

While many Eastern Conference teams have made changes in the offseason, none have made significant changes in a positive direction. The other Metropolitan teams that made the playoffs last year—the Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, and New York Rangers—have not posed a threat to the Penguins in the playoffs in their most recent Cup victories.

The Caps have re-signed some big players, including Evgeny Kuznetsov (a playoff under-performer), but were forced to move other players through trades, such as Marcus Johansson (one of the few Capitals who could actually score at even strength).

The Penguins steamrolled the Jackets on their way to winning the 2017 Stanley Cup, and breezed past the Rangers in 2016. The Jackets acquired rookie phenom Artemi Panarin from the Hawks in exchange for Brandon Saad, but the move is risky. Panarin and Saad are two very different players. Saad is more of a gritty playoff performer, while Panarin is a peripheral player. Panarin, it’s also worth noting, won the Calder Trophy while playing alongside Patrick Kane.

The Rangers, meanwhile, signed big name free agent Kevin Shattenkirk. While Shattenkirk is a strong power play defenseman, he’s not a speedy player. This lack of speed means he’ll get burned against fast teams like the Pens.

The only team that could possibly challenge the Penguins—and has shown the ability to do so in the past—is the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts pushed the Pens to game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. Tampa is one of the few teams in the east that can rival the Pens’ speed. They’ve also added Kunitz who, as the Penguins know very well, adds veteran grit. If the Pens were to face the Bolts in the playoffs again, it would be a very interesting and competitive series.

Western Conference Adversaries

The obvious contender in the West is the Nashville Predators. The Preds are coming off a historic season. Even without center Ryan Johansen and young forward Kevin Fiala, Nashville pushed the Penguins to six games in the Stanley Cup Finals. Their lineup also remains fairly similar going into the 2017-18 season. While it seems likely that Nashville will lose captain and center Mike Fisher, the Predators signed former Penguin Bonino to serve as a second-line center behind Johansen. However, Bonino did not do well as a Duck or a Canuck when expected to be a top-six forward. He did much better in Pittsburgh as a third-line center—the “B” in the famous “HBK” line with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel.

Chicago has given up a lot of big players for future considerations. They traded Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for draft picks and a prospect. Scott Darling signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. While the Hawks can never be counted out of playoff contention, these moves don’t bode well for them.

The Anaheim Ducks, meanwhile, struggled with goaltending in the postseason. When John Gibson was injured against the Predators in game 5, Jonathan Bernier started game 6 and proceeded to give up four goals on 16 shots. Unsurprisingly, the Ducks signed Ryan Miller as a backup in the offseason.

Other western conference teams—the Dallas Stars are a good example—have made big moves. However, the Stars still have to shore up their defense if they want to be big playoff contenders. For now, it seems as though the Predators are the biggest western conference threat to the Penguins, and the Pens have shown that they can smash Nashville.

The bottom line is this: the Pens have lost a lot of players, but not essential players. Has anyone stepped up to challenge them?