By Kim Dunning
The NHL off-season has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It wasn’t unexpected that the Pens would lose players during the off-season. The Pens had quite a few free agents unlike last season. Losing key players and the reason the club managed to win back to back cups, hurts.
With the Vegas expansion draft, the Pens knew they were going to lose at least one member of its team. That player was lifelong Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury. Fans expected Fleury to be the player to go to Vegas. With a younger talent Matt Murray, he was cheaper and logical to keep. When the expansion draft happened and the reality of losing Fleury set in, it was emotional. This is a decision that could come back to haunt the Penguins for the upcoming season.
Why will losing Fleury come back to haunt the Pens? If you did not watch the Penguins in the first two rounds of the playoffs, you missed a lot. Fleury was an intricate part of the Penguins success. He managed to keep a struggling non-productive first period team in games. Letting one or two goals in at the most and making incredible saves. Fleury stood on his head so that the Pens high-powered offense woke up.
Watching the Pens offense in this playoffs was like watching your favorite old car. It was slow to start but once they started going, they were unbeatable.
Without Fleury, there wouldn’t have been back-to-back Cups. Matt Murray sustained an injury that kept him out of the first two rounds. Few teams could lose a starting goaltender and have the proven backup the Pens did this season. Fleury became the hero of the Washington Capitals series with his shut out in Game 7. Many Pens fans believe that without Fleury, Pittsburgh would not have made it out of the Columbus series. More believe that the Capitals would have had a better chance to win in the second round.
The Pens have also lost what most considered to be their strength down the middle. The Pens have lost their third line center, Nick Bonino to Nashville. Fourth line center, Matt Cullen, is still deciding between retirement and another season. Cullen is interesting. As the fourth line center and 40-years old, Cullen was still playing at a very high level. Credible sources have Cullen going back home to Minnesota to finish his career.
Pittsburgh’s ability to dominate down the middle of the ice is now compromised. They had incredible depth at center on all four lines. Now, as the off-season turns, the Pens aren’t so intimidating and deep on all four lines. This is a big part of how they were able to win back to back Cups.
Then there is Chris Kunitz. The winger who scored the goal on Crosby’s 1000th point. A good friend, teammate and the hero of the Game 7 double overtime game-winning goal. A veteran presence both on the ice and in the locker room. Kunitz is the only active player with four Stanley Cups. This is a veteran presence that is already missed, both in the locker room and on the ice.
Losing players is part of the salary cap era of the NHL. Loyalty is few and far between now and money talks. Great teams overcome obstacles. This upcoming season will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh can once again rise and defeat the obstacles or if this is the year it finally gets to the team.