Thursday, August 18, 2016

Penguins primed for another run

August 17, 2016

Matt Cullen agreed to a one-year contract to remain with the Penguins. (Photo by Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire)

It's never wise to predict a repeat NHL champion. The road is just so ridiculously long. There hasn't been a repeat champ since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
The Penguins, however, have put themselves in excellent position to begin defense of their title. Better position than anyone had a right to expect this summer.
General manager Jim Rutherford has followed his fabulous season with a solid offseason.
The Penguins lost precisely one player — defenseman Ben Lovejoy — from their championship roster. On Wednesday, they retained a key piece in versatile forward Matt Cullen, who agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract to take another kick at the can. As of early evening, the Penguins remained in contention for Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey, who would be wise to seriously consider the Penguins.
Where else could the speedy, handsy Vesey slide into a left-wing role with so many elite players in a turbo-charged system on a Cup-contending team? This could be the perfect place to set himself up for future riches.
The Penguins will thrive either way. They're loaded.
It's fair to wonder if Cullen, who turns 40 in November, might hit a wall the way Bill Guerin did when he signed for “One More Year!” after the Penguins won the Cup in 2009, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Cullen is more versatile. He's still incredibly fast. He's durable. And even if he doesn't match his surprising goal total of 16, he can help in myriad ways — faceoffs, penalty killing, playmaking and, like Guerin, invaluable leadership.
Nobody thought the Penguins would be able to retain Cullen and still-promising defenseman Justin Schultz. Both returned.
As things stand, this team appears to have the perfect mix of youth and experience, star power and depth. But we know nothing stays the same in professional sports. That is where Rutherford comes in. The Penguins have a GM who is not afraid to rock the boat and has displayed a deft sense of timing.
If change is needed, change will come.
In the meantime, look up and down this lineup. Look down the middle: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino, Cullen, Eric Fehr if needed, Oskar Sundqvist if needed, etc.
It's easy to forget that Malkin wasn't healthy in the playoffs, and Trevor Daley went down in the conference final and Scott Wilson looked like the best of the young bunch until he was injured. They will all return presumably in prime condition.
What if Derrick Pouliot fulfills his immense promise?
What will Olli Maatta achieve with a full offseason of training?
I'm even starting to warm to the idea of keeping Marc-Andre Fleury with Matt Murray, at least until the trade deadline. In a compressed season, after such a grueling playoff run and with the World Cup of Hockey looming to sap more energy from the Penguins' stars, having the league's best goalie tandem could be a huge advantage.
Not that a daily goalie controversy would be a good thing, but you can see Rutherford's rationale.
If one of the two goalies is injured — and remember, both were injured as recently as the beginning of the playoffs — Rutherford will look like an absolute genius.
He's been looking like that a lot lately.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him

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