Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
Another offseason has come and gone, and we're ready to begin the 2017-18 season! Much like last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins enter as the team to beat, having successfully defended their Stanley Cup title with a six-game series win against the Nashville Predators in the Final.
The Penguins got their championship rings on Monday and will raise their championship banner on Wednesday, when they host the St. Louis Blues (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV). That will signify the official end to them being last season's champs and they'll have a target on their backs as they look to become the first three-peat champion since the New York Islanders won four straight titles from 1980-83. The Blues were buoyed by a coaching change last season and were one of the hottest teams in the League down the stretch, something they hope carries over into the new season.
These are two teams expected to compete for the title, and it's great to begin the season with this Wednesday Night Rivalry game at PPG Paints Arena. Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: St. Louis improved defensively after Mike Yeo took over for Ken Hitchcock as coach on Feb. 1. The Blues were 22-8-2 in 32 games under Yeo and qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth straight season. St. Louis allowed an NHL-low 60 goals (1.88 per game) under Yeo, scoring 90 goals (tied for ninth in the League in that span). It will be interesting to see if they can maintain that.
Jake Allen's goaltending was huge. He was 15-7-2 with a 1.84 goals-against average, .938 save percentage and three shutouts after the coaching change. It was his first season as a No. 1 following Brian Elliott signing with the Calgary Flames. Can Allen take his game to the next level?
After the departure of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk via trade to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 27, Alex Pietrangelo got more ice time and had a significant boost in production; he had 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 20 games after the trade, compared to 30 points (nine goals, 21 assists) in 60 games before. Colton Parayko, 24, was relied more on defense.
Lastly, you can never count out a team with Vladimir Tarasenko, who's had at least 37 goals and 73 points in each of the past three seasons. He's one of the best players in the League. The addition of center Brayden Schenn in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers was a great move as well. He does a little bit of everything, plays in all situations and tied for the League lead in power-play goals last season (17).
Minuses: The biggest thing for me is that they will need some production from lower down in their lineup. After the top-six forwards, someone will have to emerge. Alexander Steen (hand), Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and Robby Fabbri (knee) are injured, with Fabbri out for the season. And defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (ankle) will miss time as well.
They also could be lacking physically after trading forward Ryan Reaves to the Penguins on June 23. Reaves (6-foot-1, 225 pounds), who was drafted by the Blues in 2005 and spent the first seven years of his NHL career with St. Louis, had 104 penalty minutes last season and wasn't afraid to mix it up when necessary.
Pluses: A great thing for them is that a lot of their players are fully healthy. Center Sidney Crosby (concussion), center Evgeni Malkin (upper body) and defenseman Kris Letang (neck) each missed time last season, but each enters the season with nothing holding him back. Letang missed half of the season and the entire playoffs after having neck surgery, and having him back on defense is huge because of the minutes he plays, and situations he plays in.
I talked to Sid the other day and he said the key for them this year is that they will count on some players more than in the past to produce more and get more ice time. They've had forwards Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary do that the past two years, and now it'll be someone else's turn. Justin Schultz, who was great last year in Letang's absence, will be counted on again, as will defenseman Olli Maatta, who should receive more ice time with the losses of Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey in free agency.
Matt Murray has proven to be one of the best goalies the past two seasons. He's homegrown and home-developed and has won the Stanley Cup twice, the second time while still technically being a rookie. Obviously he was helped by Marc-Andre Fleury, but now that the Fleury is with the Vegas Golden Knights, Murray will get the lion's share of starts. He is 41-12-5 with a 2.32 goals-against average in his career and is even better in the playoffs -- 22-9 with a 1.95 GAA and .928 save percentage.
Minuses: There's no doubt the Penguins are a great team, but there are a few things that concern me. The first is that they've played a lot of hockey in the past two seasons (106 games in 2015-16, 107 in 2016-17), not to mention several of them played in the World Cup of Hockey 2016. They play a fast-paced game, so though they are a very well-conditioned team, I'm interested to see how it impacts them.
Next, they've had several key departures. Centers Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators) and Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), forward Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning), and defensemnen Daley (Detroit Red Wings) and Hainsey (Toronto Maple Leafs) each left as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. It'll be interesting to see who they use as the third-line center, something that's been a question mark all offseason.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. What does St. Louis do defensively against the speedy Pittsburgh lineup?
2. The goalie matchup between Murray and Allen, two of the best in the League.
3. Who plays third-line center for the Penguins after the offseason losses of Bonino and Cullen?