Defense optional: Penguins, Capitals combine for 13 goals

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PITTSBURGH — It was the perfect storm for the kind of wildly entertaining, completely insane game that can leave fans endlessly entertained and both coaching staffs absolutely fuming. That ended up being exactly the game the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals delivered in the Penguins’ 7-6 season-opening win on Thursday night.

On one side you had the Penguins, perhaps the most reckless run-and-gun team in the league playing in its season opener against one of its fiercest rivals — not to mention the defending champions — that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago, looking to deliver a big win to kick off the year.

On the other side you had the Capitals, another obscenely deep and talented offense that was not only playing in the second half of a back-to-back, but also coming down from the high that was a complete, systematic dismantling of the Boston Bruins on banner-raising night.

Attention to detail? Good defense? This game had absolutely none of it, and if you like scoring chances, odd-man rushes, and a heck of a lot goals, it was absolutely glorious to watch. Even if, again, neither coach was as entertained by it as, say … me. 

“You always struggle in back-to-backs with your attention to detail,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said after the game. “Our commitment to playing defense was nowhere near what we did last night. Last night we had zero high danger chances against, and that is the standard we set for ourselves, but tonight our detail wasn’t the same and our commitment to play defense as a five-man unit just wasn’t there.”

While the Capitals weren’t playing up to the defensive standard they set for themselves, the Penguins were handling the puck like it was a grenade, handing scoring chance after scoring chance to the Capitals.

Many of them ended up in the back of the net.

“We preach it daily,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan when asked about preaching puck management to his team during games. “One of the conversations we’ve had with our team  is we’re talking a lot about our team identity and we’re trying to define what that is. What i’ve said to our guys, part of the fabric of our team identity has to be becoming a team that’s hard to play against and becoming a team that doesn’t beat itself, otherwise it’s hard to win in our estimation. Our coaching staff feels strongly about that.”

He continued: “One of the easiest ways to beat yourself is to mismanage the puck. This is an ongoing conversation with our players because part of our DNA is that we have playmakers. We have players that instinctively want to make plays. They are difference makers. We are trying to challenge them that they are diligent and they have situational awareness in mind.”

The goals started filling the net right from the beginning when the two teams scored on five of the game’s first seven shots, with the Capitals scoring on three of their first four. That included goals from the usual suspects like Alex Ovechkin, and the unexpected … like Brooks Orpik, scoring his second goal in his past six games after going more than two full seasons without scoring one.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this game is there could have very easily been even more offense had it not been for some brilliant goaltending, specifically from Washington’s Braden Holtby.

And yes, there was some brilliant goaltending in a game where the two teams combined for 13 goals. Not only did Holtby make spectacular saves on Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on partial breakaways, he made the save of the night in the second period when he was somehow able to get his toe on this Jake Guentzel shot, taking away what looked to be a sure goal.

Shortly after that Penguins offense erupted again with three consecutive goals to give them a 6-4 lead that they were able to hold until late in the third period.

Just when it seemed they were going to settle things down and cruise to a win, that pesky puck management showed up and helped the Capitals score two goals — both from T.J. Oshie — just 22 seconds apart to tie the game.

The first came off of a dreadful giveaway by Malkin that left Oshie wide open in the slot, while the second was a mid-air deflection that was initially waved off by referee Eric Furlatt for what he thought was a high-stick on the puck. But after the four on-ice officials huddled they changed the on-ice call to a goal which was upheld upon review.

In the final seconds, the Penguins’ big offseason addition, defenseman Jack Johnson, had an opportunity to end the game in regulation when he somehow found himself in alone on a breakaway against Holtby. Instead of scoring, or even getting a shot on goal, he had the puck roll harmlessly off his stick into the corner, ultimately sending the game to overtime.

It was there that Crosby drew a hooking call from Evgeny Kuznetsov, setting the stage for Kris Letang‘s winner — his second goal of the game — on the power play.

In the end this isn’t a game that either coach is going to hold up as a masterpiece of hockey excellence, especially when it comes to playing the type of systematic, disciplined game they crave. It was also clear that both teams were shaking off some early season rust and haven’t yet found their complete games. That is kind of what made it all fun to watch. Just two great teams, filled with some of the world’s best and most talented players, simply trying to see who could score the most goals instead spending the entire night focussed on preventing them.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Star-laden Penguins hope longer summer equals faster start

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sidney Crosby can admit it now: The Pittsburgh Penguins were tired last season, a natural byproduct of becoming the first franchise in two decades to win consecutive Stanley Cups.

And though the Penguins came as close as any team in the last 35 years to capture three straight titles – they recovered from a blah start to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals before falling to Washington – that special gear they relied on so heavily during their run of dominance never materialized.

”Just for whatever reason, shorter summer, mentally not having that desperation level, as a group we were lacking that,” Crosby said.

Crosby isn’t making excuses so much as stating a simple fact. The Penguins played 213 regular season and playoff games from October 2015 to June 2017. A heavy workload to be sure but also a small price to pay to have your name written on hockey’s most prized possession.

While Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company spent most of last fall downplaying the idea they might be emotionally and physically drained, at times they certainly played like it. The proof came on the defensive end, where they gave up the most goals (250) of any playoff team.

Though they eventually got it going behind Malkin – who finished fourth in the league with 98 points – they also understand sleepwalking for three months cost them a legit shot at home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs and forced them to expend more energy than they anticipated just keep pace in the hyper-competitive Metropolitan Division.

That can’t happen this time around if they want to throw another downtown parade in June.

”The start is important,” Crosby said. ”You want to start out the right way, especially with how tight teams are. You can’t be playing catch-up.”

A less taxing schedule should help. The Penguins played a league-high 19 sets of back-to-back games in 2017-18. That number drops to 11 this season. For a group whose core of Malkin, Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang are all in their 30s, that’s no small comfort.

Oh, and there’s the lingering taste of watching the Capitals celebrate a rare playoff triumph in Pittsburgh.

”Of course I’m upset,” Malkin said. ”I feel we beat Washington, we have chance to win. … I never watch (after we lose). I like go to Miami, spend time with my family, my kids. It doesn’t matter, last year or five years ago. I never watch (after we lose). It’s not fun to watch.”

JACK’S BACK

Pittsburgh made just one splashy move in free agency when it lavished a five-year, $16.25 million contract on defenseman Jack Johnson. He called the move a ”perfect fit,” one that unites him with longtime friend Crosby. Still, the length of the deal and Johnson’s forgettable finish in Columbus – he requested a trade in the middle of last season and was a healthy scratch during the playoffs – raised eyebrows. The Penguins consider Johnson a versatile puck mover who could thrive in a system where he won’t be required to do much more than play responsibly and get out of the way.

”It’s always great to come into a team that has high expectations,” Johnson said. ”That’s what you want. That’s what any athlete wants coming into a team. There’s a lot of established guys that have been leaders on this team for a long time. I just wanted to come in and be myself and be part of the group and fit in with the guys and help the team win.”

‘DAD’ IS HOME

Matt Cullen is still going. The veteran center – who turns 42 in November – returns to Pittsburgh after one season in his native Minnesota. Cullen played a vital role both on the ice as a penalty killer and off the ice as a ”glue” guy as the Penguins won back-to-back Cups. Cullen still looked plenty spry during his 21st NHL training camp, and he will give the fourth line a boost.

MATT’S METTLE

Matt Murray‘s first full season as Pittsburgh’s firmly entrenched No. 1 goalie did not go to plan. After twice backstopping the team to the Cup before his 24th birthday, Murray struggled to stay healthy and play with consistency. He’s hoping an extra month to prepare for his third NHL season will help and coach Mike Sullivan is quick to point out Murray didn’t exactly receive a serious boost from the play in front of him.

GOING DEEP

As long as the Penguins have Crosby, Malkin and Kessel in the fold, they’ll be among the most talented offensive teams in the league. The goal this season is to spread the wealth a little bit more. Pittsburgh relied almost exclusively on its top power play and the combination of Crosby and Jake Guentzel late in the season and into the playoffs. A full training camp to integrate Derrick Brassard – who played with an injury most of last spring after being acquired at the trade deadline – should help. If Brassard and Patric Hornqvist can develop some chemistry, the third line could take some of the pressure off the star-laden top two groups.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT’s 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

The Metropolitan Division produced the Stanley Cup champion for the third season in a row, yet you couldn’t call it a familiar sight.

After decades of heartbreak as a franchise and a decade of heartbreak for signature star Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals finally did it. After seeing their Presidents Trophy run end and “only” winning the Metro, the Capitals won their first-ever title. Fittingly, they ended up needing to get through the Penguins, a team that’s crushed their dreams multiple times in the past. In hindsight, it HAD to happen that way.

Five Metro teams ended up making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the surprising Devils, persistent-if-frustrated Blue Jackets, and rising Flyers joining the Capitals and Penguins. Few would bat an eye if the division once again sent a maximum of five squads to the postseason in 2018-19, although the cast of characters could change.

This post winds through the ups, downs, dreams, and fears for all eight teams.

CAROLINA HURRICANES:

Better or worse?: Oh dear, that’s a loaded question.

One thing’s for sure: they’re different. They changed their coach and GM, so we’ll see if Rod Brind’Amour can maintain the possession-happy ways that partially explain why the Hurricanes have frequently been go-to dark horse candidates. (Here’s hoping that “Rod the Bod” is more progressive and modern than “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” would indicate.)

They’re also wildly different on the ice, with the biggest tweaks being Dougie Hamilton, Petr Mrazek, and Andrei Svechnikov joining the mix while Jeff Skinner, Cam Ward, Noah Hanifin, and Elias Lindholm are out of town.

Let’s lean toward better because, frankly, it’s tough to imagine their goaltending declining from last year’s season-sinking mess.

Strengths: Hamilton and free agent signing Calvin de Haan bolster a defense that already ranked among the deepest in the NHL. That’s especially true if the Hurricanes hang onto Justin Faulk, even if Brind’Amour will need to juggle to get everyone proper ice time. (Most other NHL GMs are sarcastically playing the world’s smallest violin.)

Beyond defense, Carolina boasts a ton of youth, and Svechnikov only strengthens that point.

Weaknesses: Goaltending, duh.

Mrazek didn’t exactly stop every puck that came his way after being traded from Detroit to Philadelphia, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his best Red Wings days are moving further away in the rearview mirror. Mrazek and Scott Darling could be OK, yet they don’t exactly inspire utmost confidence.

Also, while that offense has some pieces, it’s fair to wonder if there are enough gamebreakers. Trading away Skinner did not help.

2017-18 Highlight: The team kindly collects the best of last season in this clip.

MVP Candidate: Hamilton may put on an exhibition that will make him the guy in Carolina, but let’s bet on Aho, who led the team in scoring last season and is just 21 years old. Aho isn’t a household name, yet if you turn on a Hurricanes game, he’ll likely be the player who captivates you.

Playoffs or Lottery?: As “fool me once” as this feels, Carolina leans closer to the playoffs. No, this is not a recording; yes, it will be tough for them with plenty of other viable teams in the East. Whether they actually make it or not, Carolina is much more likely to be in the bubble than in the cellar this season.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Better or worse?: Worse, in some ways for matters that are out of their hands. The uncertainty surrounding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – two enormously important players – hangs over Columbus like a dark cloud. If one or both gets traded away, you can move this from a soft worse to a hard worse.

Strengths: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones might comprise the NHL’s most dazzling young defensive duo, and if they continue progressing in this current direction, you might not need the young caveat much longer.

Also, the Blue Jackets currently have a high-end forward (Panarin) and a Vezina-quality goalie (Bob). Currently.

Weaknesses: It could all come crashing down if they move Bob and Bread. We can all acknowledge that Pierre Luc-Dubois was a success as a rookie, but how good is he really if he doesn’t have one of the world’s most explosive wingers helping him out? They might need to go back to a rat-like mentality if they lose their stars.

2017-18 Highlight: If this John Tortorella medley isn’t enough, enjoy that awesome Artemi Panarin overtime game-winner from the Capitals series.

MVP Candidate: Panarin and/or Bob if one or both stays. If not, Seth Jones was really drumming up Norris Trophy buzz, although he’d need to fight off his buddy Zach, who’s generally an even more explosive scorer.

Playoffs or Lottery?: It’s easy to forget that the Blue Jackets generated 108 points in 2016-17, and were quite potent with 97 last season. They haven’t met their goals during the postseason yet, but they’ve been a force during regular seasons. Of course, losing their stars could warp that outlook …

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Better or worse?: If you’re comparing them to the team that made the playoffs, they’re worse, as they lost rentals (Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner) along with defenseman John Moore.

Generally speaking, they’ve mostly just stayed in place, but call it a step back.

Strengths: Taylor Hall faces long odds in producing back-to-back Hart Trophy seasons, but he’s a spectacular winger who absorbed a comically outsized array of abuse during his Edmonton days. Hall is awesome, and the Devils have some other nice forwards, including Nico Hischier, who immediately backed up his status as the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Kudos to New Jersey for embracing its strengths on offense last season, and there’s little reason to expect them to turn away from what worked.

Weaknesses: Cory Schneider was basically in a crisis in 2017-18, and it’s not as if that defense is really equipped to bail him out. The Devils’ forward group has some other nice pieces (especially if Marcus Johansson can get healthy), yet they still ask Hall to pull off one too many miracles.

2017-18 Highlight: All Hail Hall.

MVP Candidate: Uh, duh, the reigning MVP.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Last year, it was a no-brainer to be lottery, and then the Devils made a stunning run to a playoff berth. GM Ray Shero deserves some credit for not overreacting and messing things up by adding a bunch of short-term investments, but New Jersey is unlikely to walk that tightrope again. They’re closer to lottery fodder heading into 2018-19.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS:

Better or worse?: (Laughs awkwardly.)

Strengths: Mathew Barzal should soothe some of the John Tavares-related wounds, as he is a splendid scoring wizard of a sophomore. Sure, it will be tough to ask him to top or match last season, especially with a lot more pressure on his shoulders and far more attention from opposing defenses. Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Nick Leddy provide the sort of offensive spark that might make the Islanders fun to watch, at times.

Also, Barry Trotz could help clean up that disastrous defense.

Weaknesses: Good grief, that defense was horrendous last season, and the goaltending couldn’t clean up matters, either. Both stand as likely problems heading into 2018-19, although improvements are easy to imagine simply because the bar is so long. Unfortunately, no Tavares means that their offense is weaker by a face of the franchise-sized margin.

2017-18 Highlight: The Islanders might as well put up a Barzal billboard.

MVP Candidate: Sorry to heap all of these expectations on you, Barzal, but there’s no other choice. The 21-year-old scored 85 points in 82 games last season, and who’s to say that isn’t just the tip of the iceberg?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, by a mile. On the bright side, the Islanders hit it out of the park during the 2018 NHL Draft, and could very well land another blue chipper in 2019. Jack Hughes could look really nice as a one-two punch with Barzal, eh?

NEW YORK RANGERS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet by design. Management acknowledged that a rebuild is in motion. The fascinating question is: how long will they commit to that plan? What happens if Artemi Panarin really does heart New York?

Strengths: If there’s one person who can derail a Rangers’ tanking attempt, it’s Henrik Lundqvist, even at age 36. They aren’t totally bereft of talent, either, with Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mats Zuccarello coming to mind. Kevin Shattenkirk might deserve a mulligan after last season’s injury issues. Also, David Quinn could be a huge upgrade over Alain Vigneault, for all we know. (Plenty of Rangers fans almost wanted to co-opt their rivals’ “Yes!” chant right there.)

Weaknesses: That defense is a tire fire inside a Dumpster fire transported by a train wreck. Holy smokes. Also, Lundqvist may indeed be feeling his age and all of that past hockey mileage, and the offense is unlikely to hang with other explosive groups in the Metro. So, let’s broadly say “lots.”

2017-18 Highlight: Pavel Buchnevich made a fan’s day last season.

MVP Candidate: If anyone’s even in the realm of Hart chatter, it has to be King Henrik. Even Rangers management might root against that, consider New York’s eyeing of the basement.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, and expect the Rangers to chase more chances at first-round picks. Could they trade Zuccarello? Maybe the question is actually, “Who won’t they trade?”

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Better or worse?: The glorious return of James van Riemsdyk gives a boost to a power play that already consistently ranked among the NHL’s most terrifying groups. Considering how Nolan Patrick ended last season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he made a nice jump – if not leap – this season, too.

Strengths: Remember that bit about Columbus’ defensive duo? Philly readers might have been yelling at their screens while eating decadent sandwiches (seriously, I need to get to Philly one of these days). Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere are right up there with the best young duos in the NHL. With Claude Giroux revamped last season, Sean Couturier climbing the Selke ranks, and other scorers looking promising – opponents can’t be happy that Travis Konecny blew up once the calendar turned 2018 – this offense should be potent.

It sure seems like GM Ron Hextall’s vision is coming into focus, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.

Weaknesses: Head coach Dave Hakstol isn’t exactly beloved by Flyers fans, so that’s something to watch if Philly stumbles out of the gate.

Brian Elliott tends to play best when people count him out, and all three of Philly’s potential goalies should have motivation (contract years for Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, Carter Hart wanting to prove himself as NHL goalie now). Still, goaltending is the eternal question for the Flyers, and this year probably won’t disappoint.

2017-18 Highlight: Giroux clinched a Flyers playoff spot in style.

MVP Candidate: Giroux crossed the triple-digit barrier for the first time last season, collecting a whopping 102 points. If he can avoid the erosion of age – he turned 30 in January – then the Flyers captain could be in the Hart discussion once again.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. Considering the young players Philly boasts, it’s not outrageous to daydream about exponential growth for the Flyers. If they see more baby steps than leaps, they’re still likely to at least be in the bubble.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Better or worse?: While there were smaller moves, you can boil down Pittsburgh’s summer to giving up valuable forward Conor Sheary to make room for ( … polarizing?) defenseman Jack Johnson. The Penguins are resolute that Johnson is a great fit, but they’re making a dangerous leap of faith.

On one hand, Matt Murray is likely to enjoy a better season, and the hope is that Kris Letang will be healthier. On the other, this team’s getting older; considering how star-dependent this team can be, any slippage from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could really sting.

Strengths: Still, those stars.

Crosby and Malkin remain among the cream of the crop. All of the drama around Phil Kessel really distracts from the remarkable feat he accomplished in 2017-18, setting a new career-high with 92 points, including 34 goals.

This team has a lot of weapons, and a coach willing to actually deploy them. It’s plausible that Derick Brassard will rebound during a contract year, too.

Weaknesses: This Penguins team gives up almost as much as it produces, and that puts a heavy burden on Murray. If Brassard and others can’t get it together, Pittsburgh will continue to ask the world of their world-beaters. In a team sport like hockey, that frequently translates to asking too much.

2017-18 Highlight: Last season felt like an elaborate MLB tryout for number 87.

MVP Candidate: The Penguins remain a pick your poison proposition: will Crosby be the top star this year, or will Makin snatch the crown? Despite playing four fewer games in 2017-18, Malkin generated 98 points to Crosby’s 89. Sometimes it’s as simple as which superstar center enjoys the most help. In that regard, did you know that Jake Guentzel is entering a contract year?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. This team’s managed to clinch berths even during seasons when multiple star players miss huge chunks of time due to injury. The Penguins remain all-in, and the window to contend remains open. We’ll see if they can put it all together.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet not to the extreme that plenty of championship teams encounter. They managed to bring back key pieces of their magical curse-breaking Stanley Cup run, with John Carlson‘s re-signing ranking as arguably the biggest surprise. They didn’t even break the bank with depth players, generally speaking, as many championship teams do. That Michal Kempny deal was remarkably reasonable.

Then again, they did give Tom Wilson a gobsmacking amount of money, and Barry Trotz is out. Also, they killed untold number of brain cells celebrating their epic victory …

Strengths: The Capitals feature the many building blocks of a juggernaut. Alex Ovechkin is the high-end sniper. They have a great one-two punch of centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while their supporting cast features a nice veteran (T.J. Oshie) and intriguing young scorers such as Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. For all the worries about Todd Reirden taking over for Trotz, he might be more willing to unleash Vrana and Burakovsky. The defense has some nice pieces, and Braden Holtby shook off a tough regular season to remind us why he’s one of the league’s most reliably great goaltenders.

There just aren’t a lot of holes on this team.

Weaknesses: Reirden’s never been a head coach, and he’s facing a huge challenge in trying to repeat. Like the Penguins, the Capitals aren’t ancient, yet Father Time is at least hovering as a threat, at least when it comes to competing at the highest levels. With Philipp Grubauer in Colorado, Washington may not have much of a safety net if Holtby once again falters.

2017-18 Highlight: Pick your favorite.

MVP Candidate: People expect Ovechkin to stagger through the first few months of the season after knocking the biggest, silver item off of his bucket list, and understandably so.

On the other hand, he’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite playing a physical style where he receives and delivers a raucous number of hits, Ovechkin’s managed to play almost every game possible. Ovechkin’s played in far more games than Crosby (1,003 to 864) despite his rambunctious style.

What I’m trying to say is that Ovechkin is nigh-indestructible. This Russian Machine May Not Break.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Most seasons, it’s more reasonable to merely wonder if the Capitals will win the Presidents’ Trophy, or just their division. With a coaching change, less certainty at backup, creeping age, and the Stanley Cup hangover, maybe the Capitals will relinquish the Metro crown. Regardless, they still have the tools for a playoff berth.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins return from long summer

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CRANBERRY, Pa. (AP) — Sidney Crosby has been back in Pittsburgh for a few weeks, participating in several informal practices while his Penguins teammates returned from an unusually long offseason. Still, the first day of training camp felt different Friday.

”It’s always an exciting time. You’re excited to see all the guys,” Crosby said. ”You’re energized by the start of the year.”

That’s not the only way this camp, in particular, differs. After winning two straight Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins don’t enter the season as champs.

That said, different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

”It’s a good challenge,” Crosby said, ”and it’s fun to be back out there.”

After being eliminated with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of the second round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins will look slightly different while attempting to win a third championship in four seasons.

Forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick were traded to Buffalo on June 27. In their place, 21-year-old forward Daniel Sprong has a chance to play first-line right wing next to Crosby and left wing Jake Guentzel and Jack Johnson could bolster a shallow defense after signing a five-year, $16.25 million contract July 1.

Matt Cullen, a 41-year-old forward who was on the two title teams, signed a one-year, $650,000 contract to return to Pittsburgh. He should return to the fourth line after Tom Kuhnhackl joined the New York Islanders on a one-year contract.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t plan to approach this camp any differently, though.

”I think training camp is a great opportunity to establish our identity right away, to instill the right habits,” Sullivan said. ”It’s no secret we’re a team that likes to skate. So, our fitness level as a group is really important. We’re trying to establish that foundation right away.”

Sprong, who had 32 goals and 65 points in 65 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL last season, helped push the tempo with Crosby during the first practice Friday. He remained there in a scrimmage, where set up a goal from Crosby in the right circle.

”You want to make a difference in camp and open eyes,” Sprong said. ”I think today was a good first day, but again, it’s only one day in camp. There’s many days left to go and you have to get better everyday.”

The Penguins have seemingly been in an endless search for a right wing that could play next to Crosby throughout his 13 NHL seasons.

Sheary seemed like the answer after scoring 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 61 games in 2016-17. That was before he regressed with 18 goals and 30 points in 79 games the following season.

With Sprong, they might have found the solution. His offensive upside could overcome what defensive pitfalls his game provides.

Even it Sprong doesn’t fit, Crosby wouldn’t be concerned.

”Whatever the combinations are, I think we’re just looking to make things happen out there,” Crosby said. ”Create offensively. Make sure we get our timing and we’re aware of each other out there on the ice.”

MORE PHT PENGUINS COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Penguins
Under Pressure: Jack Johnson

Building off a breakthrough: Jamie Oleksiak

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

One of the biggest factors in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup runs was the emergence of several young players that provided a spark each season.

In 2016 it was Matt Murray, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary.

In 2017 it was Jake Guentzel.

All of them played significant roles in the second half of the season and the postseason and provided some huge moments.

They did not really get the same sort of breakthrough from their farm system during the 2017-18 season. Daniel Sprong never really got much of a chance (and when he did, did not provide much offense). Dominik Simon played more, but did not fully capitalized on his opportunities. Zach Aston-Reese flashed some potential, but only appeared in 16 regular games and then had his postseason ended in the second round on the hit that earned Capitals forward Tom Wilson a three-game suspension.

So who was the breakout player on this team that was mostly full of established NHL veterans?

It might have been defenseman Jamie Oleksiak.

[Penguins Day: 2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Jack Johnson | Three Questions]

Oleksiak become one of the Penguins’ latest reclamation projects on defense when they acquired him in December from the Dallas Stars for next to nothing.

If nothing else Oleksiak was a decent gamble because of his size, potential, and previous experience with Penguins defensive coach Sergei Gonchar (they actually played together briefly in Dallas, and Gonchar was intrigued by Oleksiak’s potential). There were enough tools there that it was worth the fourth-round draft pick to see if they could get something extra out of him that Dallas was not. If they couldn’t, it didn’t really cost them anything of significance.

It was the very definition of low-risk, potentially high-reward.

The move definitely seemed to pay off, at least in the short-term.

In his debut with the Penguins Oleksiak played the best hockey of his career and started to show at least some of the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2011. The Penguins gave him more freedom offensively, allowed him to join the rush and jump into the offensive zone, and just kind of turned him loose a little bit. The result was Oleksiak setting a new career high in points (17) and nearly matching his career total prior to the season, finishing as a positive in shot attempt metrics, and looking like he might be able to establish himself as a regular on their blue line.

It earned him a three-year, $6.1 million contract extension this summer.

The reputation of the Penguins’ — and Gonchar’s specifically — ability to work with and improve defensemen has kind of taken on a life of its own over the past year and is starting to become a little overstated. They’re not taking these players and turning them into Norris Trophy contenders or top-pairing defenders. And that is certainly the case with Oleksiak. Even now his best use is probably going to be as a solid third — and perhaps maybe a second — pairing defender. But that is still a big step forward from where he was in Dallas where he was not getting much playing time, was struggling to perform in those opportunities, and didn’t look like he had much of a future in the NHL.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.