Here we are.
Just a single, solitary day away from Penguins hockey officially being back.
It was the longest offseason this group has had since the disastrously boring and ugly 5 game series loss to the Rangers in 2015.
Forget about that shit. Let the past stay dead.
Because for as much as the cast is still similar, the team itself is not.
Sure, Sidney Crosby is going to continue to be one of the 5 best players on planet Earth. Evgeni Malkin is motivated to destroy the league and the narratives that he’s washed up. Jake Guentzel is a 40 goal scorer. Nick Bjugstad is the best 3rd line center this organization has had since Jordan Staal. Kris Letang is the straw that stirs the drink and takes them to the mesosphere. And Matt Murray is going to be there to save the damn day and build off his December-to-April heroics.
But perhaps more than anything else, this is one of the deepest teams we’ve seen in recent memory, particularly at the forward position. The offseason acquisitions coupled with the continued development of younger guys like Jared McCann, Dominik Simon, Teddy Blueger, and Zach Aston-Reese leave the Penguins with 4 lines that can and will do damage to teams on a nightly basis.
Whether that be in the form of Simon being crafty and feeding shooters like Crosby/Guentzel or Malkin/Galchenyuk, the likes of Tanev or Hornqvist terrorizing defensemen with heavy forechecking (while simultaneously being defensively responsible) to open up space for those 4 to do what they do, McCann and Bjugstad shutting down their opposition night in and night out, or Blueger and the rest of the supporting cast eating up the grimy minutes with a threatening penchant for some offensive flair, this group of 13 will be a nightmare.
And on the back end, there’s a lot to be hopeful about too, even if the personnel isn’t perfect.
The Dumoulin-Letang pairing has become one of the best in the league on top of being on the the best the Penguins organization has seen.
And while the rest of the D core remains similar (less Maatta), the look won’t be the same.
Regardless of what the practice lines indicate, your 3rd and 4th best defensemen should see the bulk of their minutes together, if for nothing else than the “get the puck to up Malkin as quickly as possible” perspective. A lot of the season rides on these two being great together and there’s no reason stylistically that suggests they can’t or won’t be.
They have to play together.
And on the third pairing, well, put your torches away for a minute and consider this:
He had to have, regardless of what those practice lines suggest. Period.
We know what we have in the alternative. We have 12 years of evidence illustrating that. So even if the difference between the unknown and the alternative is marginal or negligible, there’s a skillset that the unknown has (the ability to skate and the comfort with having the puck on his stick) that the alternative simply doesn’t possess. And at this point in one’s career, you aren’t going to teach skating and passing.
And even if, worst case scenario, Juuso Riikola only improved to be a half step up from the alternative, that alone creates a world where the Penguins are and will still be better tomorrow than they were 6 months ago. With the way the coaching staff and the front office have talked about Riikola this preseason, you have to think they know that too.
And that’s the point.
Because with a lineup that looks like this:
it’s hard to imagine a world where that isn’t demonstrably and dangerously good.
It’s goddamn October, baby.
Are you ready?
P.S. We casted some pods to preview the season. Go listen to them.