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31 in 31

Inside look at Pittsburgh Penguins

Quest for third straight Stanley Cup title more challenging after loss of Fleury, depth players

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will try to become the first NHL team to three-peat since the New York Islanders won four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83.

Key players like centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have played a lot of games the past two seasons, and Pittsburgh's depth took some hits during the offseason.

The biggest loss arguably came shortly after free agency opened July 1, when center Nick Bonino signed a four-year, $16.4 million contract with the Nashville Predators, who the Penguins defeated in six games in the Stanley Cup Final. General manager Jim Rutherford said Pittsburgh might find Bonino's replacement at third-line center through a trade.

 

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"We've talked about enough different things that I'm confident we'll get somebody," Rutherford said.

Losing veteran forwards Chris Kunitz, who signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 1 after playing the past nine seasons in Pittsburgh, and Matt Cullen, who signed with the Minnesota Wild on Aug. 16, also depleted Pittsburgh's depth. To add some physicality, the Penguins acquired forward Ryan Reaves and the No. 51 pick (defenseman Zachary Lauzon) in a trade from the St. Louis Blues at the 2017 NHL Draft on June 23 for forward Oskar Sundqvist and the No. 31 pick.

By trading Sundqvist, the Penguins let go of a player some expected to step in as fourth-line center sooner rather than later. With Cullen, 40, deciding against retiring but opting to leave Pittsburgh, there could be some instability among the bottom-six forwards, at least early in the season.

"I think it's important now that we don't panic," Rutherford said. "I've talked to [coach Mike Sullivan] about this and he says, 'As long as I have my two big guys [Crosby and Malkin] healthy, I can work around anything early in the season.'"

The Penguins also took some hits on defense. Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings), Ron Hainsey (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Mark Streit (Montreal Canadiens) each signed with another team as an unrestricted free agent. Matt Hunwick is being counted on to step into a regular role after signing a three-year contract with an average annual value of $2.25 million July 1. Hunwick had 19 points (one goal, 18 assists) in 72 games for the Maple Leafs last season.

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Although the departure of Daley, who had 41 points (11 goals, 30 assists) in 109 games during two seasons in Pittsburgh, is a sizable loss, the Penguins retained defensemen Justin Schultz, who signed a three-year contract with an average annual value of $5.5 million July 1, and Brian Dumoulin, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a six-year contract with an average annual value of $4.1 million July 24.

Re-signing Schultz was vital for the Penguins. With Kris Letang battling injuries throughout the season, Schultz's 51 points (12 goals, 39 assists) led Pittsburgh defensemen.

"I want to be here," Schultz said. "This is where I like to play. I'm having so much fun here. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Letang, who had season-ending neck surgery April 13, worked with former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens during the summer and is expected to be ready when the Penguins begin the regular season Oct. 4 against the Blues. He had 34 points (five goals, 29 assists) in 41 games last season.

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Losing Daley and Bonino could have the greatest impact on the ice, but the departure of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft on June 21 likely was the most notable of the offseason for the Penguins. With Fleury gone, Matt Murray should see his workload increase after starting 47 games in 2016-17.

Antti Niemi signed a one-year, $700,000 contract July 1 to back up Murray. Tristan Jarry, who backed up Fleury early in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs while Murray recovered from a lower-body injury, could play during the regular season, Rutherford said.

"We felt it was important to add a veteran backup goalie at this point in time," Rutherford said, "and that it would help Jarry's development."

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