Players eventually have an expiration date. Whether it is Father Time tapping them on the shoulder, Mother Nature slowing them down, or simply the next generation catching up, greatness eventually becomes good. The Pittsburgh Penguins were blessed to draft generational talents Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in back to back drafts, but that was nearly 15 years ago.
In fact, the hockey gods gifted the Penguins with four future Hall of Fame players who achieved their prime together, beginning with Marc-Andre Fleury, whom the Penguins drafted first overall in 2003. The Penguins selected Malkin second overall in 2004, Crosby in 05, and the Penguins plucked Kris Letang in the third-round that year, too.
That was a pretty good draft in 2005, but in the words of Freddie Mercury, “Who wants to live forever?”
Fleury is already gone. Malkin was within a couple of weeks of being gone last summer until everyone involved pulled back on the yoke. The sun will soon set on the Penguins dynastic decade in which they were the kids who upended the grizzled veteran Detroit Red Wings for their first Stanley Cup parade, just one year after Detroit taught them a painful lesson on home ice.
The flat salary cap, the herky-jerky nature of these coming NHL playoffs, and because next season will be a marathon compressed into a sprint, it looks like this will be the last best ride for Crosby, Malkin, and Letang.
The Penguins stealth youth movement, which included snagging Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad, John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and the insertion of Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese into the lineup with fellow mid-20s regular Jake Guentzel has created a sustainable supporting cast.
But the Penguins engine has a few miles on it. Crosby and Malkin were brilliant when healthy this season, but neither was able to avoid significant injury. Crosby missed months after core muscle surgery, and Malkin missed more than the first month of the season with a soft tissue leg injury.
The optimistic will say it is bad luck. The realists among us will note the stars’ age. Crosby is already 32. Pending additional COVID-19 closures and next season scheduling, he might be 34 before the 2021 Stanley Cup is awarded.
Even if the Penguins are lucky enough to have Crosby and Malkin healthy for the next few NHL playoffs, the supporting cast will become an issue, too. Rugged winger Patric Hornqvist is playing a game of chicken with his contract and the end of his career. His crash-and-bang at the net style leads to a lot of bruises. He’ll soak up more than $5 million for the next four years.
This offseason, the Penguins will need to make a choice in goal and cast their lot with that netminder for the next handful of years. Choose wisely.
McCann needs a new contract. The Pittsburgh Penguins need a top-line RW and will need a second power-play QB and third-pairing right-side defenseman. The Penguins will also need to pay Marino handsomely after next season.
Because of the flat cap, the salaries the Penguins paid to players like Hornqvist, Pettersson, and even Brandon Tanev loom large. With a growing cap, they fit nicely. With a restrictive cap, more sacrifices are coming.
For these 24-team NHL return to play, the Penguins will have Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust, Patrick Marleau, and big-game goalie Matt Murray in the net.
Pavel Datsyuk was 29 and 30 in the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, respectively. That is about the same age as Crosby and Malkin were in 2016 and 2017 when the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Young stars Chicago stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and young Los Angeles stars Anze Kopitar, and Dustin Brown lifted Stanley Cups between the Penguins championships. Ageless wonder Zdeno Chara is the oldest captain this century. He was 34 when Boston lifted the Stanley Cup in 2011 (and 42 last season when Boston almost lifted it). Alex Ovechkin was about to be 34 when Washington won in 2018.
However, Chara is no longer the Bruins top defenseman, and his role is as much leadership as it is on ice. Boston certainly doesn’t ask Chara to carry the team. It would be unfair to expect Crosby and Malkin to carry the team for too much longer. In fact, it would be unprecedented in the modern era.
The Penguins will not get younger or better than they are, right now. At 34 or 35 years old, Crosby and Malkin will be great, but probably not as great as they were.
And that is why this is the Pittsburgh Penguins last best shot.