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Experience, depth will aid Penguins in quest for third straight Cup

Health of Letang, development of young forwards has Pittsburgh primed for another deep playoff run

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

The Pittsburgh Penguins think they're in position to become the first team to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions since the New York Islanders won four straight titles from 1980-83.

Its previous experience helped Pittsburgh grind out four series wins in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs and could be its most prominent asset again this season. The Penguins took a hit, though, when forwards Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), defenseman Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas Golden Knights) left during the offseason.

Despite those losses, the Penguins remain one of the favorites to win the Cup again. With centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang recovered from neck surgery, coach Mike Sullivan is confident in their chances.

"What I like about the group that we have is we have the ability to move players around," Sullivan said. "So, if we spread them and we put our star power on three lines versus two, it creates a whole different dynamic."

Here is a look at the five keys for the Penguins, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Healthy Letang

When he's on the ice, Letang is one of the NHL's more dynamic offensive defensemen. The only problem is, he's struggled to remain healthy throughout his 11 seasons in the League.

That was the case again last season, when he missed 41 games with various injuries before he was shut down to have neck surgery on April 13. Even with Letang missing half of the regular season, he finished second among Penguins defensemen with 34 points (five goals, 29 assists), behind Justin Schultz, who had 51 points (12 goals, 39 assists) in 78 games.

With defensemen Ron Hainsey (Toronto Maple Leafs), Mark Streit (Montreal Canadiens) and Daley gone, the Penguins could use their defensive leader late in the regular season.

Video: Kris Letang lands at No. 28 on the list

2. Young forwards developing further

Forwards Jake Guentzel, 22, Conor Sheary, 25, and Bryan Rust, 25, have undeniably impressed early in their NHL career. Sheary and Rust have won the Stanley Cup twice, and Guentzel won it as a rookie last season.

Guentzel led the NHL with 13 playoff goals joining Sheary on a line centered by Crosby. Rust has become known for scoring high-pressure goals, most notably his two goals in a 2-1, Game 7 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final.

They'll have to continue that trend when they transition from young role players into dependable veterans. Sheary was the first to experience some turbulence; he scored seven points (two goals, five assists) in 22 playoff games and was temporarily removed from Crosby's line.

If the Penguins hope to compete for a third straight championship, they'll likely need Sheary to rebound while Guentzel and Rust avoid similar slumps.

3. Murray remaining consistent

Goalie Matt Murray's poise was heralded throughout his first two seasons and likely will be again. The 23-year-old, who rarely has two straight poor games, is 41-12-5 in the regular season and 22-9 in the playoffs since making his NHL debut on Dec. 19, 2015.

When he did struggle, Murray could always lean on Fleury, who he referred to as a mentor. That won't be the case this season with Murray the definitive starting goalie and Antti Niemi backing him up.

Murray said he thinks he'll hold up fine while starting more games.

"It's just about trying to be prepared for anything that comes my way," Murray said. "I think that will give me that confidence that when you're out there, you can play without worrying about it and just kind of know your body is strong enough and flexible enough to handle anything that comes your way."

Video: STL@PIT: Murray stuffs Stastny's one-timer

4. Schultz continuing breakout

In much the same way Pittsburgh will rely on Letang to remain healthy, it will depend on Schultz to put together a second straight productive season. His 51 points last season were 18 more than he had in any of his previous six seasons and 33 more than he had with the Edmonton Oilers and Penguins in 63 games in 2015-16.

Pittsburgh showed it believes in Schultz by signing him to a three-year, $16.5 million contract on July 1. He has to justify that confidence by avoiding a regression this season.

5. Replacing Bonino

The Penguins will likely make a trade to find a third-line center, the position Bonino vacated by signing with the Predators on July 1.

General manager Jim Rutherford has been reluctant to rush a trade because he would like to find the right player, not just a player, to fill that hole.

Though Bonino wasn't as productive last postseason, he was valuable centering the "HBK Line" between left wing Carl Hagelin and right wing Phil Kessel in 2016, when he scored an NHL career-high 18 playoff points (four goals, 14 assists). Acquiring another solid center could re-establish a similar amount of depth.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

There are several virtual locks throughout Pittsburgh's roster. Crosby is obviously the biggest. The 30-year-old has won the Conn Smythe Trophy in each of the past two seasons and is in his prime. He led the NHL with 44 goals last season and should be a force again as long as he remains healthy.

Video: Sidney Crosby lands the No. 2 spot

Biggest battle

Letang wants to reclaim his spot at the point of the top power-play unit after his injury forced him to surrender it to Schultz, who finished with 20 power-play points (three goals, 17 assists). But Letang has consistently served as the definitive leader of the top unit when available. Sullivan said he'll likely use Letang and Schultz on that unit at different times and might put them together at times.

"I don't see any reason why I wouldn't be able to [play on the top power-play unit]," Letang said. "So, hopefully everything goes well and I go back to the old ways."

Most intriguing addition

Pittsburgh signed defenseman Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million contract on July 1 to replace Daley. Hunwick might not be as effective offensively as Daley, but he should be a solid third-pair defenseman with the ability to limit the negative repercussions stemming from Daley's absence.

Biggest potential surprise

The Penguins sought additional protection for Crosby and Malkin when they acquired forward Ryan Reaves in a trade with the St. Louis Blues on June 23. To play in Pittsburgh, Reaves must keep up with his agile teammates, and Sullivan and Rutherford believe he'll do that. Reaves has not scored more than 13 points in any of his seven NHL seasons, but he could find an offensive touch with the Penguins.

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Jake Guentzel -- Sidney Crosby -- Conor Sheary
 
Scott Wilson -- Evgeni Malkin -- Phil Kessel
 
Carl Hagelin -- Greg McKegg -- Patric Hornqvist
 
Bryan Rust -- Carter Rowney -- Ryan Reaves
 
Brian Dumoulin -- Kris Letang
 
Ian Cole -- Justin Schultz
 
Olli Maatta -- Matt Hunwick
 
Matt Murray
 
Antti Niemi

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