The Pittsburgh Penguins attended the White House on Tuesday to celebrate their second consecutive Stanley Cup championship. At first, the players appeared very serious — did anyone crack a smile? — until several in the audience broke the ice with a “Let’s Go Pens” chant. After greeting a few team personnel, Trump approached the podium to declare: “By the way, everybody wanted to be here today.” All current Penguins players on last year’s team were expected at the White House. Trump lauded the Penguins for their 111-point season a year ago, calling them “a great group of world champions” before he singled out several players, starting with team captain Sidney Crosby, who had insisted leading up to the team’s White House visit that “there’s absolutely no politics involved” in the decision to attend.
“Do you know how to win or what,” Trump said to Crosby, last year’s playoff MVP who seemed content on keeping his distance from the president, prompting Trump to say, “Are you shy? … You have built an incredible legacy in Pittsburgh. Has he outdone you, Mario?” Other players Trump recognized were forwards Evgeni Malkin (“the other half of the two-headed monster,” a beaming Phil Kessel (the lone Penguin to approach the podium to shake Trump’s hand), goalie Matt Murray, up-and-coming forwards Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary and defencemen Justin Schultz and Kris Letang. “You are true, true champions and incredible patriots,” Trump told the players as first lady Melania Trump stood behind the president. Trump later said the Penguins “are ready for the challenge” of trying to win three consecutive Stanley Cups for the first time since the New York Islanders of the early 1980s. Unseen on Tuesday were the usual gifts a championship team brings to the White House, including a personalized jersey. For the most part, Trump stayed on track with the Penguins’ recent accomplishments, but took time to tell those affected by the recent hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. and Puerto Rico that “we’ll be here for you in a time of tragedy and need”. Trump then turned to Burkle and praised his ability to negotiate before inviting him to get involved in re-negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
NHL players that have to prove themselves, especially this season:
Josh Anderson, Columbus Blue Jackets
Few players have more to prove this season than Josh Anderson. That’s not because he’s coming off of a career-best year, which he is, nor is it because there are high hopes for the Columbus Blue Jackets, which there are. Rather, the expectations for Anderson have increased due to an off-season contract dispute with the Blue Jackets that saw the two sides, team and player, dig in on their demands. The contract dispute made Anderson a frequent topic of conversation in hockey circles, too, so much so that even those who weren’t all that familiar with his 17-goal, 29-point performance last season started to wonder what his potential upside was. But now, with Anderson under contract after accepting a three-year, $5.5-million offer, some would suggest that he now has the chance to prove he was worth not what he was paid, but what he was after — reportedly $150,000 more per season than the $1.85 million he’ll be paid annually. So, what would a successful season for Anderson look like? Well, it’s one of those cases where the obvious answer is the right one. For Anderson to show he was worth the lengthy negotiation he’ll have to surpass his career highs, flirt with the 20-goal plateau and use his big frame to become a dominant power forward and net-front presence. He’ll gain a bigger responsibility when it comes to ice time and see an uptick from the 12 minutes he averaged last season. He’ll skate with better linemates and be given more chances to produce. And when he gets his opportunities, he’ll be expected, not asked, to capitalize.
Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers
The Rangers made some off-season changes, but arguably the biggest was saying goodbye to top-line center Derek Stepan and passing the torch to Zibanejad. Not only did Zibanejad get pegged for top-line duty, though, but he was rewarded with a five-year, $26.75-million contract as a restricted free agent, a deal which makes him the second-highest paid forward on the entire club. Suffice to say, the Rangers are putting a lot of stock in Zibanejad’s continued development. Now, unlike Hellebuyck who needs to bounce back, what Zibanejad needs is more of the same to relieve the pressure the organization will be putting on him. While some may not consider him a top-line pivot, Zibanejad has continually increased his rate of production and has shown he’s a capable two-way player. Offensively, his 0.66 points per game rate last season was the 45th-best mark among all centers who played at least half the campaign, putting him in the same category as David Krejci, Nathan MacKinnon and, yes, Stepan. Already, Zibanejad has four goals in three games and he appears more than ready to accept his new role.
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid has been under immense pressure, and performed under the watchful eye of the entire hockey world, for the better part of the past half-decade, so when he signed his big-money extension – an eight-year, $100-million deal that will kick in next season – it didn’t really increase the pressure on him all that much. He’s expected to be the best in the game, as he was last season, so he was paid as such. When it comes to Draisaitl, though, many saw his new deal, which pays $8.5 million per year, as an exorbitant contract for a player who had one outstanding season while playing alongside McDavid. And that’s why Draisaitl has a lot to prove. Though he’s primarily playing alongside McDavid to start the year once again, it would stand to reason that Draisaitl will eventually be given the chance to run his own line this year. And when that opportunity comes, Draisaitl has to step up to the plate. The eight-year, $68-million deal he signed was as much about producing like a top-line player as it was about securing a 1-2 punch down the middle for the Oilers, so Draisaitl will be expected to carry the load on his own line at one point or another. The sooner he can do that, too, he’ll shake the tag as simply McDavid’s wingman and prove that he was worth every penny.