Are Pittsburgh's glory days done, just like Chicago's? Not so fast. There's reason to believe the Penguins can contend for a third Cup in four years next season.
Every great empire seems invincible…until it isn’t. It happens in the blink of an eye or a lightning-quick deke from Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Pittsburgh Penguins were two-time defending Stanley Cup champs, at home, facing the Washington Capitals, the team that had choked away so many opportunities against them in recent post-seasons…and, all of a sudden, the thing that was supposed to happen over and over…didn’t. Alex Ovechkin intercepted a puck, threaded a perfect pass to Kuznetsov, and he beat Matt Murray, five-hole.
The Game 6 overtime winner signified the beginnings and endings of so many things in one instant. Murray will now experience not winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career after going all the way two straight seasons. The Washington Capitals qualify for the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998, when their Ron-Wilson coached squad went all the way to the final. Barry Trotz was a few months away from commencing his first head coaching gig with the Nashville Predators then. It took him 19 seasons, but he finally booked his first ticket out of Round 2 with that Kuznetsov goal Monday night. And, of course, it was an epic moment for Ovechkin. His forever counterpart Crosby has three Stanley Cup rings and has advanced past Round 2 five times, but Ovie finally gets to a conference final for the first time in his 13th NHL campaign.
The Capitals now stumble into blinding, exciting territory, having finally slayed their personal Minotaur in the Penguins, who have eliminated them from the playoffs three times in the Ovechkin era. But what’s next for the Pens, the team that has spent the past several seasons in pure win-now mode, the team so committed to the present that it surrendered a first-round pick last summer for Ryan Reaves only to deal him away partway through the season?
The Chicago Blackhawks suddenly have to pop up in the minds of many concerned Penguins fans. They were the NHL’s unofficial pseudo-dynasty from 2010 to 2015, winning three Cups in six seasons. Like the Penguins, they built their roster by paying a handful of elite stars mega bucks and repeatedly replacing the depth around them via trades, clever signings or internal promotions. The top-heavy model worked great for GM Stan Bowman…until it suddenly didn’t. Patrick Kane remains an elite NHL star, but Jonathan Toews has slipped into the next tier down, while workhorse blueliner Duncan Keith has reached his mid-30s, longtime partner Brent Seabrook has fallen apart in his early 30s and Marian Hossa is all but retired due to, ahem, an equipment allergy.
So that’s the problem with the top-heavy roster model: once the extremely wealthy stars top performing at peak levels, the system collapses because the support players aren’t talented enough to pick up the slack. That’s why we saw Chicago slip from Stanley Cup to consecutive first-round losses to out of the playoffs altogether in the past three seasons. There’s absolutely no shame in that, of course. The Blackhawks emptied out their draft-pick supply in the name of championship pursuits, and they may not be an elite team again for many years, but they got three Cups using Bowman’s model. It was absolutely worth it.
The question now is: are the Penguins in a similar boat to the Blackhawks in, say, 2016, when the team they used to own, the St. Louis Blues, finally conquered them in the playoffs?
One could easily make that case. The Pens have more than $32 million invested in just four players: Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang. They have more than $70 million in cap space already committed for the 2018-19 season. Like the Blackhawks, the Pens have also punted the idea of mining high-end prospects during these championship years. This June will mark their fourth consecutive draft without a first-round selection, and their first-rounder five drafts ago, Kasperi Kapanen, never played a game for them since they dealt him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Kessel deal. In our 2018 Future Watch magazine, our panel of NHL scouts and executives graded the Pens’ farm crop dead last out of 31 franchises. Pittsburgh’s top-ranked individual prospects were Daniel Sprong at No. 56 and Tristan Jarry at No. 74. There’s no blue-chip help coming for this franchise, in other words.
The Pens have some warts to worry about among their existing personnel, too. Letang enjoyed a healthy season but played some of his leakiest defensive hockey in years. Murray endured multiple injury-related absences and has now missed time with various health problems, from concussions to a broken hand, seven different times in the past two years. His .907 save percentage this season also ranked 38th among 49 qualified goaltenders in the regular season, and he wasn’t much better in the playoffs at .908.
So, sure, the pessimists have some ammunition to support the idea we witnessed the end of something in Pittsburgh Monday night. The science of aging tells us every great sports team eventually fades away. But is it Pittsburgh’s time yet? Not so fast. Here’s why it’s too early to declare their dynastic years over:
1. Their elite forwards are still elite. Malkin, Kessel and Crosby finished fourth, seventh and 10th in NHL scoring this season. Malkin will likely earn some Hart Trophy votes, while Crosby remains arguably the NHL’s most complete player, a dominant two-way force. And Kessel just enjoyed the best season of his career. So, unlike in Chicago, where only Kane is still producing at championship-caliber levels, the Pens still have multiple superstars up front. Their power play hummed along at a league-best 26.2 percent this season.
2. Goaltending remains a strength, not a weakness. Give Murray a break. He endured a tough year emotionally after losing his father mid-season. He’s still just 23, younger than Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson, and owns two Cup rings. The Penguins also received pretty respectable backup work from Jarry and Casey DeSmith in spurts this season, so they have a safety net if Murray continues getting hurt.
3. The Pens don’t need high draft picks to develop good players. Jake Guentzel has been positively legendary as a playoff performer. He also went just 77th overall in his draft year. Bryan Rust went 80th. Conor Sheary wasn’t even drafted, nor was Zach Aston-Reese. The Pens’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has a history of developing seemingly marginal prospects into legit NHL contributors, so maybe the Pens’ lowly rated development pipeline produces a few more surprises in years to come.
4. Extreme depth up the middle. On top of Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins have Derick Brassard signed another year, and Riley Sheahan should return once he re-signs as an RFA. That gives Pittsburgh two Hall of Fame pivots in the top six and two solid options in the bottom six.
5. More cap space than meets the eye. So the Pens have already committed $70 million, true. But the cap is projected to rise into the $80-million range, and GM Jim Rutherford doesn’t have a ton of work to do on his existing roster. The Pens have no impact UFAs. Only Rust and Sheahan count as relatively important RFAs, and neither will come close to breaking the bank. Even looking a year out – Guentzel is the only major RFA needing a contract for 2019-20. Pittsburgh thus has some money to play with – perhaps to pursue an impact defenseman. That could mean entering the John Carlson sweepstakes or, heck, how about pursuing Erik Karlsson? The Pens only have so many prime years of Crosby and Malkin left, so there’s no reason for Rutherford to stop chasing aggressive upgrades.
So while we’ll see the Penguins’ glory years disappear eventually, it’s too early to treat 2017-18 as the end. They should enter 2018-19 as legit Stanley Cup contenders again, and they’ll be an important team to watch in the off-season.