A summer that was expected to bring seismic changes for the Penguins ended instead in the unlikely return of the big three.
With fresh long-term deals, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are back alongside captain Sidney Crosby for an NHL-unprecedented 17th season. Add that the club also managed to bring back wingers Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell – not to mention extend head coach Mike Sullivan for three years after his current deal expires – and that means the narrative in Pittsburgh is the same as it’s been for, well, about 17 seasons now.
“I’m not surprised because we have a good team, and I think most players want to stay here because they understand we have a chance to win,” Malkin said. “This is a professional organization; we work to win here every day.”
But, with a roster that projects to be the oldest in the NHL this season, can they win?
GM Ron Hextall was convinced to bring the core back largely because he agrees with his players – all of whom feel strongly that they’ve deserved a better fate in the playoffs than their first-round exits of the past two years.
“Last year we had a great team,” said defenseman Letang who, at age 35, is coming off a career year with 68 points. “Unfortunately, we had some injuries in the playoffs; we didn’t get the result we wanted. There was a feeling in the dressing room that this is a team that can win it all. That was the feeling. It hurts, and that little feeling you have in your gut when you know you have a good team makes it hurt even more.
“People saw what we were able to do, so why change everything? But we made some adjustments, that’s for sure. We filled spots where maybe we were lacking in different aspects of the game.”
The Penguins’ adjustments came primarily on the blueline, where they shipped out offensive-minded Mike Matheson, 28, and John Marino, 25, and got a little bigger and stronger on the defensive side of the puck with the additions of Jeff Petry, 34, via the Matheson trade, and Jan Rutta, 31, via free agency.
“Jeff has a great shot, good offensive instincts and he’s a big body; can defend well in the zone,” Letang said. “Jan has experience through the years he played in Tampa; he’s part of a winning culture that’s going to bring us a lot. He’s willing to go to war out there, block some shots and can play both sides of the puck really well.”
“We have more players that bring a certain dimension that they’re real good at,” Sullivan said. “Jeff Petry is just a legitimate top two, top three defenseman in the league. He’s good on both sides of the puck. His size, his athleticism, he’s going to make us harder at our net-front, and we don’t give up anything from a transition or mobility standpoint back there. I think he’s going to make us a better team.
“You look at Jan Rutta, he’s a very good penalty killer, so he brings that dimension. Just having guys who bring more diversity to our defense corps makes us a more formidable team.”
The new additions should bring a significantly different look to the Penguins’ blue line. They also bring a logjam as, after Letang, Petry, Rutta, Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson, Pittsburgh is left with Ty Smith (acquired via the Marino trade), prospect P.O Joseph and veterans Mark Friedman and Chad Ruhwedel competing for one or two more NHL spots.
The 1-2 punch down the center of the depth chart, however, is unchanged, after Malkin signed his four-year deal on the eve of heading to free agency.
“I wouldn’t see Geno on any other team; he’s such a dangerous player,” Letang said. “Anything you would’ve done to try to replace him, you would lose that tradeoff. So to have him on our side and being able to witness what he does every night – he’s a magician. He does what nobody can.”
Malkin didn’t want to see himself on any other team, either.
“I believe in myself; I believe I’m still a good player,” Malkin said. “I believe in my teammates. I’m here to win.”