NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, three questions facing the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will enter this season looking to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions. Although they feel they are in position to become the first team to achieve that feat since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980-83, there are a few questions they must answer if they are to hoist the Stanley Cup a third straight season.
[PENGUINS 31 IN 31: Season preview | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the numbers]
1. Will Kris Letang bounce back from neck surgery?
Before undergoing season-ending neck surgery to repair a herniated disc April 13, Letang said he was confident his teammates could win the Stanley Cup without him. He was eventually proven right, but it's unlikely the Penguins could go all the way this season without Letang healthy and at least near his peak.
Letang, one of the more explosive offensive defensemen in the NHL, had 34 points (five goals, 29 assists) in 41 games last season. With defensemen Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit signing elsewhere during the offseason, the Penguins will need Letang to stay healthy and produce in 2017-18.
Video: 31 in 31: Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-18 season preview
2. How will they retool?
Unlike when they entered last season with their Stanley Cup-winning roster nearly intact, the Penguins lost several key members of their 2017 championship team in the offseason. In addition to Daley, Hainsey and Streit, forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen left in free agency, and their departures have not been fully addressed.
Without Bonino and Cullen, who played third- and fourth-line center last season, the Penguins lack the quality depth that helped them win the past two championships. General manager Jim Rutherford has said Bonino's replacement could come in a trade after the season begins.
3. Will Matt Murray hold up?
Having won the Stanley Cup twice as a rookie, Murray unquestionably is one of the best young goalies in the NHL, but he never has played more than 49 games in the regular season.
That should change this season, when Murray plays without goalie Marc-Andre Fleury backing him up. There's no reason to doubt he will be fine without his mentor after going 41-12-5 with a 2.32 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in 62 games in his first two NHL seasons.
Still, with Antti Niemi as the backup instead of Fleury, Murray's role should increase even more than it did last season, when he became the definitive starter.
"We had a unique relationship, for sure, but a great one," Murray said of Fleury. "He did a lot for me, for sure."
Video: Matt Murray takes the No. 4 spot