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Gorman: Penguins embracing lofty expectations

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, 10:13 p.m.
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby during the first day of practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby during the first day of practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby during the first day of practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby during the first day of practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

A glance around the Penguins dressing room should have been a shocking sight.

In Marc-Andre Fleury's longtime locker stall sat Antti Niemi. Where Chris Kunitz once dressed, there was Jay McClement. Nick Bonino's spot is occupied by Ryan Reaves.

Gone are three players who made major contributions to the Penguins' run to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships — and, in Fleury and Kunitz, a pair who won the Cup three times with the team.

While it was weird to imagine the Penguins without Fleury, Kunitz and Bonino, we were long prepared for their eventual departures.

“There's a number of guys who've been here for awhile that aren't here,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Those guys did so much for us. I think we can all take something from that, but, obviously, we've got to get better and find a way to do it again.”

The Penguins opened training camp Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry amid talk of a Stanley Cup three-peat but with little to no drama.

Not unless you count winger Patric Hornqvist missing the start because of a “procedure” on his hand.

Then again, Hornqvist scored the winning goal at Nashville in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final with a broken right hand. So, he will actually be healthier than when he made the biggest play of his NHL career.

We'll take a healthy Horny.

“If one wants to manufacture drama, I'm sure you'd be able to make up a story or find a story,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “But, as far as we're concerned with our team, everybody is very happy with the guys we've got coming back in this locker room.”

It's a room brimming with confidence that it can claim another Cup championship, especially after winning it this past June without top defenseman Kris Letang.

“Just because we won without (Letang) doesn't mean we don't think we don't need him on our team,” Cole said. “That's ridiculous. He's an unbelievable defenseman. We're welcoming him back with open arms.”

Despite the departures of Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey, it's fair to say the Penguins are better on defense simply because of the return of Letang (who moved to Daley's locker stall), if not the addition of Matt Hunwick (who took over Hainsey's locker).

“Of course, not being part of last year was tough, but I think this year I'm coming (back) fresh,” said Letang, who returned from neck surgery and pronounced himself healthier than he has been in years. “My goal is the same: to make this team better and try to win the Cup.”

When the third-line center is the biggest question surrounding this team, it's no wonder the Penguins are embracing expectations.

Then again, they still have in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, centers who have both won the Art Ross, Hart and Conn Smythe trophies.

“Well, if I was picking two guys that I wanted to start the season with to try to do it again, those would be the two guys, certainly,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “As we know, it's not easy winning it once. It's not easy winning it twice. The teams in the league will be more geared up for us. But, certainly, we have a good enough team to win again. There are a bunch of other teams that are good enough to win, but that's our goal — and I think we can do it.”

Cole believes the Penguins have created a culture where veterans pass down not only the team's traditions but its winning ways to a younger generation. That passing of the torch was perfectly captured when Fleury handed the Cup to Matt Murray, his successor in goal.

If the transitions at other positions go as smoothly, the Penguins could be poised to make history by becoming the first team to three-peat in the NHL's salary cap era.

“I think any legitimate team, any competitive team, their goal at the start of the year is to win the Stanley Cup.” Cole said. “We've been fortunate enough to win two of those, but it doesn't mean that because we've won two we're going to be content just making the playoffs, or (think) we can miss the playoffs this year because we had two good years before.

“Like any competitive team, our goal is to win this year — and anything short of that will be considered a failure with the team we have in here and how confident we are with the team we have in here.”

And especially how confident they are without the players they don't.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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