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Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-2018 Season Preview Part II (A Week Late!): The Defense/Goalies

So this blog was originally supposed to be released before opening night, but apparently I’m a lazy piece of shit and missed my deadline. Oops. Anyways, we’re only three games into the 2017-2018 campaign so it’s not like there isn’t plenty of hockey left to be played. Besides, we have 79 and change to go (assuming the Penguins make the playoffs for the 37th consecutive season). So let’s do the damn thing. It’s time to preview the blue line and the goaltenders for your defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

As you may remember, the defense was a bit of a question mark last season for the Penguins. Specifically, I’m talking about how everyone and their mother basically gave up on the Penguins chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champs the moment it was announced that Kris Letang would be missing the duration of the postseason due to season-ending neck surgery. But guess what, fuckers? You were all wrong (and so was I)! Kris Letang watched all 25 games last postseason from the press box, and the Penguins still found a way to win the Stanley Cup (albeit with a makeshift blue line). That’s not to say the goaltending situation wasn’t a big old clusterfuck in its own right, but it’s not like Mike Sullivan was trying to decipher between which Norris Trophy candidate to insert into his lineup each game like he was when he had to make ballsy decisions like sitting Marc-Andre Fleury right after he basically stole the Penguins a series. But hey! It all worked out. And that’s part of the reason why Bill Belechick Mike Sullivan is the best coach in hockey. He always seems to pull the right strings. Even if 90% of the fanbase has a meltdown on social media every single time he makes an out of the box lineup decision [insert dumpster fire meme].

Now, just like the forwards, there will be quite a bit of change on the back end for your 2017-2018 Pittsburgh Penguins. Fan favorites like Marc-Andre Fleury and Ron Hainsey (just kidding) are gone, while fresh new faces like Matt Hunwick (who?) and Antti Niemi (fuck) are now onboard the pirate ship. It was quite an eventful offseason. So let’s stop dicking around, and let’s take a look at the defensive pairings/goaltenders.

Dumoulin – Letang

Hot off a new six-year contract, Brian Dumoulin will be partnering the Penguins top defensive pairing alongside the very handsome/oft-[freakishly] injured Kris Letang. When healthy, this will undoubtably be one of the best defensive pairings in hockey. With Dumoulin, you’re getting a 25-year old who arguably hasn’t reached his full potential yet as a pro. He’s not gonna do a whole lot of flashy shit or score a ton of points, but he may very well be the perfect compliment to an elite-level defenseman like Letang. Duoulin’s going to eat up a ton of minutes, play sound defensively, and make quality transition passes to his forwards. On the opposite side of the ice, we all know what we’re getting out of Kris Letang. If he can somehow stay healthy, Letang has the potential to be a Norris Trophy finalist. Before going down with a neck injury last season, Letang was on pace to record a career-high 68 points. I’m not gonna be unrealistic and say that Letang’s definitely going to repeat this same level of production given the uncertainty of athletes returning from spinal fusion surgery, but we’ve all seen the videos of Letang training like a mad man. Even if guys like Terrell Owens can break his ankles, Letang will still be in good enough shape to play 25+ minutes/night.

Cole Hunwick – Schultz

SPOILER ALERT: Ian Cole will be out indefinitely due to taking a slapshot directly to the chicklets over the weekend.

While we all have Ian’s teeth in our in thoughts in prayers, newcomer Matt Hunwick will be stepping into his place on the second defensive pairing alongside Justin Schultz in the meantime. Look, I’m not going to sit here and say that I knew much about Matt Hunwick before the Penguins signed him as a free agent over the offseason, but I didn’t know shit about Matt Hunwick. At 32-years old, Hunwick has decent speed and the ability to move the puck which makes him a good fit for the Penguins’ defensive system. Sure, he may have shit the bed in his first three games as a Penguin, but so did Ron Hainsey (or basically every game except for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final). Still gotta give the guy a shot, though. Opposite of Hunwick is walking beer chug meme, Justin Schultz. In his first full season as a Penguin last year, Schultz exceeded everyone’s expectations and some tying for 7th in points (51) amongst NHL defensemen. In return, Schultz was rewarded for his efforts over the offseason by receiving a brand new three-year contract extension worth $5.5M/year. Look for Schultz to continue creating offensive opportunities on the blue line for the Penguins at even strength in addition to quarterbacking the second PP unit.

Maatta – Ruhwedel

A lot of people seem to give Olli Maatta shit about his contract (he signed a 6-year contract extension in 2016 which averages over $4M/year), but the truth of the matter is he’s underperformed over the past year and a half or so. When you’re making that kind of dough and you only score eight regular season goals in a three-year span, well, people are gonna be all up in that grill even if you’ve had like 74 surgeries over that timespan. It’s just the nature of the beast. Like Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta thrives off of confidence (and booze). After burying a few big goals in the Ottawa series last postseason, look for Olli to regain some of that offensive prowess he possessed in his rookie year when he scored a career-high 29 points. As for Chad Ruhwedel, well, he’ll remain in the starting lineup until either Ian Cole returns from his upperbody injury or Bobby Ryan tries to concuss him again with another flying elbow.

Murray/Niemi

 Gotta be honest, it sucked to see Fleury go, but I felt pretty confident about this new goaltending tandem up until probably last Thursday when Chicago took a giant shit all over the Penguins. Don’t get me wrong, Matt Murray is the Penguins goaltender of the present and future (not to mention the fact that he won two Stanley Cups in his rookie year). I’m not worried about him having a few shitty games here and there in the regular season. He’s proven he can bounce back after a poor performance time and time again. The guy’s as steady as they come. What I am worried about, though, is his durability. Soft tissue injuries, like the hamstring injury he sustained last year in warmups during the first game of the playoffs and the groin? injury he sustained last December, are a real cause for concern. If Murray goes down with an injury this season, it’s not going to be as easy as it was last year when the Penguins had Fleury ready to hop onto the ice in relief. Sure, Antti Niemi has similar career numbers to Marc-Andre Fleury (Niemi: .250 GAA/.913 SV%; Fleury: .258 GAA/.912 SV%). But Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t depreciated into toxic waste over the past three seasons like Niemi. At 34-years old, Niemi is coming in off his worst season as a pro last season with the Stars where he sported a 12-12-4 record with a 3.30 GAA and .892 SV%. Not exactly stellar goaltending. Let’s all hope and pray he turns it around, but in the meantime, pray for Murray to stay healthy this season. Because if Niemi plays anything like he did against Chicago, the Penguins might be fucked (or at least until they call up Tristan Jarry).

Now let’s go beat the shit out of the Capitals again and make the rest of the league our bitch like we always do!

Follow me on twitter: @PeepsBurgh

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