Pittsburgh Penguins: Are they favorites to win again?

Coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a tall task awaiting in 2017-18′. Few teams win consecutive Cups but three straight; that’s rare. The last team to accomplish such a feat was the New York Islanders, winning four straight from 1979-80 to 1982-83.

Is this the year the Penguins go from NHL powerhouse to an unstoppable force? A non-Original Six team achieving something generally reserved for those that have been around for awhile.

They sure hope so, but the road will be more challenging than it was in previous years. Gone are Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley and Marc-Andre Fleury among others. All played integral roles in the Penguins’ recent success.

Kunitz and Bonino were two gritty forwards able to score the dirty goals, all in the name of keeping superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin healthy. Meanwhile, Daley proved to be a versatile defenseman with the ability to play both sides and occasionally chip in offensively.

Offsetting those losses, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford went to work, bringing in Matt Hunwick from the Toronto Maple Leafs. An alternate captain, he provides leadership to a young defensive unit. He also will provide a boost to the penalty kill, a role he excelled in last season.

Rutherford also re-signed two key cogs from the past couple of championships in forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Brian Dumoulin to three and six-year contracts, respectively.

In goal, the Penguins bid farewell to one of their absolute best in Fleury. The 32 year old was key to Pittsburgh’s 2009 Stanley Cup and played early in the 2017 postseason. However, inconsistencies and the emergence of rookie Matt Murray in 2016 sealed his fate. The team exposed him for the June 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, a move that likely gave the Vegas Golden Knights their starting netminder.

As difficult as that had to be, the team found a capable backup in Antti Niemi. The former Dallas Stars netminder spent much of his career as a starter, though with mixed results. He should benefit from a lighter workload, one that doesn’t have him starting every other night.

Have the Pittsburgh Penguins done enough to give themselves an opportunity to win three straight? While unknown, this team will almost assuredly remain atop the tough-as-nails Metropolitan Division. A division featuring top notch opponents on a nightly basis, it isn’t wise to discount their chances of hoisting the Stanley Cup again in 2018.

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