Now is the time to see if Sidney Crosby still has it. That probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.
There’s little question that the Pittsburgh Penguins captain, who turns 36 this summer, is still a force in the NHL on the ice. And it was suggested in this space that the team was right in deciding to keep its core of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang together.
Rather, the question becomes whether Crosby, the other core players and the Penguins on the whole are still a big draw for players around the NHL who might be targeted by management – for now, management essentially means one man named Kyle Dubas.
Dubas, hired last week as the Penguins’ president of hockey operations, said he will pull double duty as interim general manager at least through the next several weeks that cover the draft and the initial frenzy of free agency.
There’s little question that any player selected by the Penguins in the draft will be thrilled simply because it’s a ticket to the NHL, but it’s a long shot that any newly drafted player will have an impact in the next season or two. And with a prospect cupboard that is not very deep, more immediate help will have to mostly come from outside the franchise.
Namely, free agents who might be pursued by the Penguins. Or trade targets, including those who have a clause in their contract that gives them at least some control over what team they can be shipped to.
For many years, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the Crosby era were broadly considered one of the NHL’s marquee clubs, including by players around the league. Perhaps in some ways and in some corners they still are.
However, the team is coming off a season that included missing the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. The Penguins have not won a playoff series since 2018. And, while the core players – who have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup three times – are still talented and formidable, there is always the question of how many more seasons that will be the case and whether the team will be a contender again anytime soon.
Sure, the decline was hastened by moves made by the previous regime, specifically several decisions by former GM Ron Hextall. And that effectively wasted a season or two while the core players were still playing at a high level.
Can that decline be reversed?
Dubas, widely considered a smart hire and huge upgrade, made it clear that there are big decisions to be made this offseason and that he believes several spots not manned by core players need an upgrade.
He also made it clear that he believes Crosby & Co. still can not only carry the team, but also elevate the overall play of the club.
“Everyone looks at it and says their age is what it is, so how much longer does the group here have?” said Dubas, who when next season opens will be a year older than Crosby and Letang and the same age as Malkin.
“When I talked to Sidney Crosby, it was clear that his only intention and desire is to win, and that’s what I wanted to hear because I think that can have a massive impact on raising the level of the players that come in behind as prospects or younger players that we’re able to acquire here in the next stretch.
“That character – his character and that of the group – can reduce the amount of time, the gap between what’s now and what’s next.”
Dubas isn’t just talking about Crosby’s well-known and admirable penchant for reaching out by text to welcome players when they join the Penguins.
Crosby and the core – and perhaps coach Mike Sullivan and Dubas – could be good enough at their craft to lead a modified roster back to the upper echelon of the NHL.
But that depends a lot on which players the Penguins are able to attract.
Dubas mentioned that the Penguins have about $20 million of cap space to work with this offseason. That will have to cover several players, however, so the team might not be able to offer top dollar compared with some other clubs that pursue the same players.
Hometown discounts might be a thing of the past, or mostly so. They have been based on players taking a little less in exchange for a legitimate shot at the Cup.
One test of that will come when we see what happens with pending free agent top-six winger Jason Zucker. He said he would like to return, but pretty much all players say that even if they intend to test free agency. He almost assuredly will have to take less than he could get elsewhere to re-sign with the Penguins.
The number of players targeted by the Penguins who see them as attractive enough to perhaps take a little less to come to Pittsburgh remains to be seen.