In any sport, it’s convenient to have a couple of superstars. The Pittsburgh Penguins have that in the form of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. The Penguins are now one game away from their fourth Stanley Cup, and while this superstar trio has been a big part of the success, others have stepped into the spotlight, as well.
Over the past two months, offseason and midseason acquisitions by general manager Jim Rutherford and call ups from AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton have given the Penguins the much-needed depth to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Last offseason, Rutherford began working on turning the Penguins into a Stanley Cup threat, starting with the blockbuster deal that brought Phil Kessel from Toronto to Pittsburgh.
After a slow start to the 2015-16 season, Kessel adjusted well, scoring 26 goals and compiling 59 points while playing in all 82 games. He also compiled a plus-minus rating of +9, which was remarkable compared to his -34 rating in 2014-15 with the Maple Leafs.
This postseason, Kessel has been one of the Penguins’ best offensive weapons, leading the team with 10 goals and 21 points. It’s easy to think of him as a superstar — which he is — but, in Pittsburgh, he doesn’t have to be “they guy” and can focus on being part of an incredible cast.
Three other offseason additions included signing Eric Fehr to a three-year contract, Matt Cullen to a one-year contract and acquiring Nick Bonino from the Vancouver Canucks. Despite missing time at the beginning of the season due to offseason elbow surgery, Fehr has fit in well, finding success on the penalty kill and compiling eight goals and 14 points in 55 regular season games. Bonino also missed some time due to injury this season, playing in 63 games and picking up 20 assists and 29 points. Cullen had a stellar regular season, playing in all 82 games and scoring 16 goals and 32 points.
During the Penguins’ postseason run, Fehr, Bonino and Cullen have provided huge sparks.
In a pivotal Game 4, Fehr picked up his third goal of the postseason, sealing a 3-1 win for the Penguins while the Sharks were desperately attempting to tie the contest.
While Fehr is mostly known for his work on the penalty kill, Bonino has always been known for his stellar offensive abilities. This postseason, he has come up clutch on multiple occasions, scoring two game-winning goals and compiling 17 points — a mark that ranks him second on the team behind Kessel.
During this postseason run, Cullen, who won a Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, has compiled six points with four goals, including two-game winners. And he has provided much more than just stellar statistics; the 39-year old has provided leadership and play that shows interesting parallels to Bill Guerin, who served as a veteran leader during the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup title run.
The Penguins were quiet at the trade deadline, making a few under-the-radar moves. Pittsburgh traded Rob Scuderi to the Chicago Blackhawks for Trevor Daley, while another move involved David Perron heading to the Anaheim Ducks for Carl Hagelin. Both Daley and Hagelin had exceptional regular seasons, compiling 22 and 27 points, respectively, but they’ve had an even bigger impact in the postseason.
Daley, who picked up six points in 15 postseason games, was known primarily as Letang’s linemate who would consistently log more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. Daley provided an offensive spark as a guy who could occasionally join offensive rushes and play stellar defense at the same time. Unfortunately, he broke his ankle in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, keeping him out of the rest of the playoffs.
When Hagelin made his Pittsburgh debut and fans were introduced to his fast-paced brand of hockey, he instantly became a fan-favorite. He was eventually paired with Bonino and Kessel, and the trio’s line — known simplay as the “HBK line” — has gone viral this the postseason. Playing with Bonino and Kessel has only helped the 27-year old Swedish winger, who has compiled 10 assists and 15 points during the postseason.
The Penguins have also used talent within their own system to help create a successful hockey team. Guys like Matt Murray, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary have been a huge part of the Pittsburgh’s postseason success.
Rust has given the Penguins a spark, scoring a pivotal breakaway goal in Game Six to seal a 4-2 win and scoring two goals in Game Seven. In Game One of the finals, both Rust and Sheary tallied goals in the 3-2 win. Sheary also had an impact in Game Two, tallying the overtime game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory.
Despite starting 13 regular season games in his NHL career, Murray has stepped up as a solidified starter in net. Murray has thrived in the postseason, compiling a 14-5 record with a 2.09 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Even with regular netminder Marc-Andre Fleury now healthy (concussion), Murray hasn’t done much wrong to lose his starting job. He’s made some rookie mistakes, but, overall, his play hasn’t looked like a rookie’s in his first playoffs.
With all these moves, Rutherford deserves a ton of credit for trading for and signing key role players to surround his stars — and also for making a midseason coaching change that changed the dynamic of the team for the better.
Depth is incredibly important in the game of hockey, and the Penguins have a ton of it. Because of it, they find themselves in a prime spot, one game away from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.