NASHVILLE — No disrespect was intended when the pundits made their predictions in April and picked against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
If anything, it was a great deal of respect for Kris Letang.
And when Letang had neck surgery and was lost for the playoffs, it was simply hard for many to see how the Penguins could win it all again.
Yes, the Pens still had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But Letang was such a huge part of last year’s Stanley Cup run. He was the prototypical No. 1 defenseman that every champion seems to have. He was on the ice half the game. He got the puck moving. Heck, he scored the winning goal to beat the Sharks.
No way they could win without him.
Except they just did.
So congratulations to Brian Dumoulin, Ron Hainsey, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, and Ian Cole. Those six — a.k.a. the “simple bunch,” per Mike Sullivan — just became the most unheralded group of defensemen to win the Cup since Bret Hedican, Aaron Ward, Mike Commodore, Frantisek Kaberle, Niclas Wallin, and Glen Wesley did it for Carolina in 2006.
“They know the pressure that comes with losing a guy who plays 25 to 30 minutes, and they weren’t intimidated by it,” said Crosby. “I think they proved what they’re capable of.”
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, who just so happened to be the GM of that ’06 Hurricanes team, knew it would be a lot harder to win without Letang.
“You can’t replace him, so you’ve gotta figure out a different way to do it,” Rutherford said. “We’re fortunate that we picked up Ron Hainsey. He ate up a lot of minutes, played in the top pairing, did a good job. All six guys did a good job.”
And yes, the experience in Carolina helped him believe it was possible.
“In ’06 in Carolina, we didn’t have a No. 1 defenseman,” said Rutherford. “We didn’t have that dominant defenseman. And when Letang went out, I said to our guys, ‘Don’t worry, we can do this.'”
Still, so many good teams have tried and failed to win without that No. 1 guy. Chances are, next year’s champion will have that guy, and the ’06 Hurricanes and ’17 Penguins will be remembered as the exceptions that prove the rule.
“I can’t say enough about that group,” said Crosby. “It was pretty difficult what they were able to do night in and night out.”
But they did it.
The pundits were wrong.