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Tim Benz: New Penguins facing big skates to fill for 2-time champions

| Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, 8:30 p.m.
The Sabres' Jason Pominville tries to deflect the puck past Penguins goaltender Antti Niemi in the second period Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 at PPG Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Sabres' Jason Pominville tries to deflect the puck past Penguins goaltender Antti Niemi in the second period Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 at PPG Arena.

“Welcome to tahn yinz new guys! Now don't screw it up.”

For the likes of new Penguin acquisitions Matt Hunwick, Greg McKegg, Antti Niemi and Ryan Reaves, they are all embarking on their first seasons in Pittsburgh starting with the home opener Wednesday night.

And you can't blame any of them who may be getting the vibe: “Sure, we're happy to have you. New guys come here all the time. And it always works out. Just make sure you're every bit as good as the guys who helped us win two Cups in a row. GOT IT?!”

That sense may become tangible from the fans and media quickly after the first two-game losing streak of the season. But the new players are all insisting it isn't present in the locker room.

“I think it's a really good group of guys here. I found it really easy moving my family here,” Hunwick said. “I've played in New York. I've played in Toronto. Places where you are under a bit of a microscope anyway. So all the off-ice distractions, you don't really worry about it. There's no added pressure.”

Jake Guentzel knows. He's experienced it. He joined a defending championship unit last year and was asked to produce in high-leverage situations. Which he did. To the tune of 29 goals and 54 points between the regular season and playoffs.

But that didn't come without the internal pressure of trying to avoid being the new guy who messed up a good thing. Something he admitted did creep into his thinking at the outset of his recall from the minors.

“Maybe a little bit,” Guentzel laughed. “But you just play your game. Do what got you here. The leadership group does a great job and takes you in.”

Team captain Sidney Crosby is the top of that leadership group. He says it's incumbent on him to make sure if new players are struggling with that external scrutiny or self-inflicted nervousness that these teammates aren't hampered by it. He also preached the importance of the offseason additions immediately feeling as if they are important cogs in the machine and not just spare parts.

“Guys have to want to embrace that,” Crosby said. “I think they have to play with a lot of confidence and belief, and they want to have an impact. They haven't come here with the thought of being a passenger and feeling it out.”

Of the new crop of Penguins, Niemi will be the one held to the highest standard.

Reaves isn't really replacing anyone. That's why he's here in the first place. To provide a physical element that hadn't previously existed.

Hunwick is here to be the sixth or seventh defenseman. And even McKegg's efforts to become a version of Nick Bonino won't be judged until the early spring since Bonino's most positive contributions usually didn't begin until about a month before the playoffs.

But Niemi is the new Marc-Andre Fleury. And if anyone knows what it's like to be blamed for everything in this town, it's Fleury.

Fleury withstood that fan backlash early in his career though. That's, in part, why he departed as a noble hero in the expansion draft.

Well, that, and the fact he won a Cup and was excellent serving as Matt Murray's replacement through the start off the Eastern Conference final. So, Niemi has big skates to fill.

But whereas a misplayed puck or a bad attempt to exit the zone from one of the new skaters might not be noticeable to the naked eye, any goal Niemi allows will be highlighted.

“I haven't really thought that way so far. I'm more focussed on my own doing here everyday,” Niemi said, brushing off a question about filling Fleury's void.

The Penguins have become masterful at making moves and getting new guys to fit in. See: Daley, Schultz, Hagelin, Hainsey, Bonino, Kessel, etc. They didn't have to do much of that until late in the season last year.

If they are to win a third championship in a row though, the new additions will have to be good and be good quickly.

Because if they aren't, who do you think the fans will turn on first? The guys they had barely heard of until this summer? Or their heroes who have staged two victory parades in the last 15 months?

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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