New faces, same expectations for Crosby, Penguins
PITTSBURGH -- The number of players who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup titles is dwindling.
Matt Murray is in Ottawa. Patric Hornqvist is in Florida. Assistant coaches Jacques Martin, Sergei Gonchar and Mark Recchi are gone, too. All part of a mini-housecleaning following a second straight early playoff exit.
The departures were painful in their own ways. Yet 15 years into a career that’s destined for the Hall of Fame, longtime captain Sidney Crosby understands change is a constant regardless of success.
''I think that, regardless of whether you win or lose, just with the way things are set up it’s hard to keep a team together,’' Crosby said. ''But especially when you lose, there’s going to be a shakeup. For guys coming in, they’ll be excited for a new opportunity and for guys that played last year, obviously not happy with the way it ended.’'
How could they be? The Penguins navigated a series of injuries to high-profile players - including both Crosby and fellow franchise pillar Evgeni Malkin - to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference. Yet their stay inside the NHL’s playoff bubble lasted all of four games after 12th-seeded Montreal pulled off a stunner.
While coach Mike Sullivan survived, the faithful lieutenants who served alongside him during the club’s historic run to consecutive championships did not. Neither did Hornqvist or Murray, whose steady play in net helped him put his name on the Stanley Cup twice before his 24th birthday.
General manager Jim Rutherford’s retooling included acquiring speedy forward Kasperi Kapanen from Toronto, cutting defenseman Jack Johnson, flipping the 34-year-old Hornqvist for 26-year-old defenseman Mike Matheson and signing 27-year-old blue-liner Cody Ceci.
The Penguins are hopeful the moves help them regain the speed advantage that carried them to the Cup shortly after Sullivan’s arrival in December 2015. Still, they also have tempered expectations, at least outside the organization. Pittsburgh is 1-9 in its last 10 playoff games dating to a second-round loss to Washington in 2018.
Defenseman Kris Letang isn’t sure the outside skepticism is a bad thing.
''When you don’t have all the eyes on you, you can focus more on your game and focus on preparing and trying to get better without having the spotlight on your team,’' defenseman Kris Letang said.
The spotlight always being a relative term when Crosby is involved. He remains one of the league’s most potent and imaginative playmakers when healthy. For Pittsburgh to thrust itself back into the Eastern Conference’s elite, he’ll have to be.
Tristan Jarry’s emergence from backup to unlikely All-Star last season made the decision to trade Murray to Montreal an easy one. The soft-spoken 25-year-old Jarry would rather let his play do the talking, no pep talk from Crosby required.
''Like any goalie, you love when you see that they’re poised back there and they’re confident, and he showed that last year’’ Crosby said of Jarry. ''He showed a lot of poise when he played last year. ... We’ll be there for him if he needs us but I don’t think there’s much to be said.’'
Sullivan’s new staff includes the return for former assistant Todd Reirden, re-hired shortly after being let go as Washington’s head coach. One of Reirden’s charges is trying to get the middling power-play back on track. The Penguins converted just 19.9% of their chances with the man advantage last season despite packing it with elite scorers. The Penguins were third in the NHL in that category during Reirden’s first stint with the club from 2010-14.
''When I think about that time I think about it was just making sure everybody was on the same page,’' Crosby said. ''We understood whatever it was we were trying to do that night. But I think just our habits were good, our work ethic was good. Everybody contributed and took whatever the defense gave it.’'
JAKE AND BAKE
Forward Jake Guentzel helped carry the Penguins through their injury-marred first half last season and earned an All-Star berth in the process. Then his shoulder slammed into the end boards on New Year’s Eve and he missed the rest of the regular season. He had a goal and two assists during the team’s brief playoff stay but is eager to get back to work alongside Crosby as he enters his fifth season.
''It’s different - being (a veteran and being) able to have confidence and know that you belong,’' Guentzel said. ''It’s definitely a different time now that you’ve been in the league for a couple years ... (but) I’ve just got to get back to playing hockey.’'
The Penguins had visions of placing Kapanen alongside Crosby and Guentzel on the top line. Visa issues in Finland forced Kapanen to miss the start of training camp and he is expected to miss at least the first week of the regular season.