Part of the success the Pittsburgh Penguins enjoyed in 2016 was due to massively successful rookie campaigns of youngsters like Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary. They also got large contributions from in-season trades like Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin and last off-season’s crown jewel, Phil Kessel. The Penguins became the first team to suit up multiple players from the 2015 draft during the 2015-2016 season (not something anyone expected). And they won the Stanley Cup because from Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang all the way down to Eric Fehr and Justin Schultz, there were impressive performances in key moments by unheralded players.
But coming into 2016-2017 which of these players, or anyone else for that matter, are most likely to regress? Which of these guys are most likely to have a down year after a spring full of promise?
It’s hard to pick on any of the Penguins’ recent class of rookies because what made them so great was that they played their roles so well and that included so much more than scoring and goals. Sheary took his opportunities and ran with them all spring. This culminated in the playoffs when he ascended from the third/fourth line to Sidney Crosby’s wing alongside Patric Hornqvist. He didn’t score a ton of goals but when he did they seemed to be big ones (like the Game Two overtime winner in the Stanley Cup Final).
But if anyone is going to regress, it’s going to be a young, small forward. Plenty of quick waterbug style players have moderate success, but Sheary with moderate success won’t stay on the wing with Sidney Crosby past October 14th. Sheary had something in the first season all rookies who break out have: the element of surprise. When people talk about sophomore slumps they’re less often due to the player him or herself than those combating them. Typically the difference in a good player’s second season isn’t what they’re doing, it’s that they have been faced with a new obstacle. The old moves won’t work. So I expect to see Sheary struggle, especially early on (to be fair I also actually expect the same of Artemiy Panarin of the Blackhawks) while he has to re-learn how to be creative.
The thing is though with a guy like Sheary, there are other aspects to his game which should stay intact. While he might see a drop down to a lower line, I don’t expect the drop off to be like he’s been pushed off of a cliff.
I know, I know. I sound insane to anyone reading this right now. But there is a reason the Penguins are holding onto both Murray and Fleury heading into the 2016-2017 season. That reason is named Cam Ward.
Cam Ward had a stellar 2006 playoffs and led the Carolina Hurricanes to the promised land of Stanley Cup glory as a rookie. Then he became Cam Ward. Jim Rutherford learned a lesson the hard way about depending on young netminders too soon. And I think he might be on to something.
Murray is talented. He reads plays well and has strong side-to-side movement. He might even have ice in his veins, but he’s still got tells. The knee drop a lot of people noticed during the playoffs is the biggest example. There will be tape for opponents to watch now and how he responds will be important. This is why Fleury is still a Penguin. They have to be certain Murray is ready and with a pressure packed position like goaltender that’s likely to be tested.
I know he hasn’t currently signed a deal anywhere, but if he does (and he’s likely to do so) Matt Cullen will be in for quite the regression. Cullen’s 16 goals in 2015-16 was his second highest output ever and one he hasn’t reached since 2009-10. He’s still a valuable asset to any team because of what he brings to his teammates, his puck possession numbers and how he scores timely goals, but he’s not likely to keep those numbers up.
His numbers, surprising speed, and the feel good story of his family captivated everyone in the spring of 2016, but will he be able to put another year on his tires? It’s hard to say and with his age and need for a raise I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sign elsewhere, but wherever it is it’s hard to believe the man who said he himself was shocked by his offensive output in 2015-16 will be able to match that in 2016-17.