Second-year Pittsburgh Penguins ready for the big next step | Sports | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Second-year Pittsburgh Penguins ready for the big next step

A full season of Sid feeding him the puck will be fun to watch.

Matt Cullen is headed into his 19th season in the NHL. He’ll turn 40 in November. He’s seen a lot of hockey. In the midst of the team’s Stanley Cup run a few months ago, after bouncing the New York Rangers from the playoffs in the first round, the Penguins’ elder statesman was asked about the impact of four rookies.  

“We wouldn’t be here without them,” he said. 

Forwards Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and goalie Matt Murray were instrumental in bringing home the franchise’s fourth championship. Cullen explained that when the team was banged up during the regular season with injuries (Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino and Marc-Andre Fleury), the young group stepped up. “They essentially saved our season,” he said.  

The trio of 24-year-old wingers have a half-season of NHL experience under their belts each and produced in the playoffs, as did 22-year-old goalie Murray. What will the not-so-baby Pens do for an encore?  

Matt Murray 

By all accounts, Matt Murray is the goalie of the future for the Penguins. He appeared in 34 games between the regular season and the playoffs, allowing two goals or less in 22 of those contests. In the finals, San Jose found a soft spot or two in his game; he was vulnerable to top-shelf shots. But improvement in that area is expected this season. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a month or so to see Murray in action as he recovers from a broken hand suffered in the World Cup of Hockey. 

When is the last time a Stanley Cup-winning goalie was named Rookie of the Year the following season? The Montreal Canadiens’ Ken Dryden, who as a rookie won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1971, was awarded the Calder Trophy for the 1971-72 NHL season.  

With just 13 regular-season games played last year, Murray could join him. 

Bryan Rust 

The right winger is a speedy forechecking machine who isn’t afraid to mix it up with older, more experienced, and much bigger players on the ice. Rust nearly matched his 41-game regular-season point total (11) in the postseason with six goals and nine points in 23 playoff games. The Penguins might not have made it to the Stanley Cup finals if it weren’t for Rust and his two goals in game seven of the conference finals against Tampa Bay. 

Skating on his own, but not practicing with the team just yet, this preseason he is dealing with a finger injury. But once he is ready to go, he’ll knock off the rust, and most likely play beside Evgeni Malkin.  

Conor Sheary

From undrafted free agent to winning a Stanley Cup on Sidney Crosby’s wing, life is good for Conor Sheary. Speed and skill is the name of this little guy’s game. At 5’8” and 175 pounds, Sheary slices through the neutral zone and provides the creative Crosby with plenty of scoring options. Sheary also picked it up in the postseason, scoring a game-winner against San Jose, one of his 10 playoff points. 

He’s a smart player who stays out of the penalty box, and a full season of Sid feeding him the puck will be fun to watch.

Tom Kuhnhackl

The son of one of the most decorated hockey players in Germany, Erich Kuhnhackl, Tom Kuhnhackl became the first NHL player to bring the Stanley Cup to his home country. Known for his defensive prowess, the fourth-liner has become an asset on the penalty kill and has a strong puck-protection game, possessing the puck with a low turnover rate. Kuhnhackl tallied two goals — including the game-winner to kick off the first round against New York — and three assists in the postseason. Head coach Mike Sullivan likes his offensive upside and his potential to become a very good two-way player. 

With Matt Cullen back in the fold for one more year, Kuhnhackl is sure to benefit on his line along with Eric Fehr, making the Penguins one of the deepest teams in the NHL.