The 2017 Stanley Cup champions paid a price for their success.
Unlike the 2016 Penguins, who managed to bring back nearly the exact same roster to defend their title, this year’s club will have a decidedly different look.
Gone are their third- and fourth-line centers, with Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen departing for Nashville and Minnesota, respectively.
Winger Chris Kunitz, a heart-and-soul player on three championship teams since he arrived in 2008-09, is off to Tampa Bay.
Defenseman Trevor Daley signed with Detroit, and both blueliners the team acquired at last year’s trade deadline, Ron Hainsey (Toronto) and Mark Streit (Montreal), also found new homes.
Former franchise netminder Marc-Andre Fleury got the chance to become a team’s No. 1 again, joining the Vegas Golden Knights via the expansion draft.
Even the front office wasn’t immune, with associate GM Jason Botterill and assistant coach Rick Tocchet getting promotions to the head jobs in Buffalo and Arizona, respectively.
A few new faces are at Penguins camp this week in their places. Filling Daley’s spot is veteran D Matt Hunwick, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Another vet, netminder Antti Niemi, will back up No. 1 goalie Matt Murray. Tired of seeing his team manhandled in the playoffs, GM Jim Rutherford swung a deal to bring in a player he hopes will be a deterrent, Ryan Reaves, from St. Louis.
Carter Rowney, who established himself as a full-time NHLer on the fourth-line wing last year, is the likely candidate to fill Cullen’s center slot. And there will be spots open for competition, too.
Rutherford liked what he saw at last week’s 2017 Prospects Challenge, which the Penguins won. “I was impressed with how some guys have come along. They’ve really made a big step, and there’s guys now that have put themselves in a position to make our team this year.”
But Bonino’s third-line role still needs to be addressed. In theory, anyway.
Rutherford said Friday he wasn’t surprised – “not at all” – that the summer ended without a move to fill that hole. He’s not worried about it, either. “I’m maybe not as anxious as you guys are to fill that role.”
There are a couple of reasons for that, and their names are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“If I was picking two guys that I wanted to start the season with to try to [win] again, those would be the two guys,” Rutherford said. “They carry the load.”
He’s also more concerned about finding the right fit than getting a deal done quickly.
“If you look at what’s been done over the last couple of years with the guys who have fit into that role, you understand what my answer is,” Rutherford said. “There’s guys out there that we’ve talked about. I probably could’ve made a deal by now, but we’ve got our focus on about three guys, and I think one or two will become available, maybe even before the season starts.”
If not, he said, even a prospect – like 23-year-old Teddy Blueger, who captained the Penguins at the Prospects Challenge – might be capable of stepping in.
“Not suggesting that they’re the guys that’ll be there all year, but certainly I’m confident that, if we’re starting the year with the guys we have, we’re OK.”
OK enough to make a run at a three-peat, in the GM’s view. Though his history indicates he won’t hesitate to pull the trigger when there’s an opportunity to improve their roster depth.
“Certainly we have a good enough team to win again,” Rutherford said. “And I think we can do it.”