A 3-Peat? Well…
When the Penguins went meekly out of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs in a five-game first-round loss to the New York Rangers, many around the NHL theorized that Pittsburgh’s championship window was rapidly closing.
The Penguins had preceded that playoff exit with a four-game collapse against Boston in the 2013 conference finals – scoring twice in those four games – and then by losing the final three games of their 2014 second-round matchup against the Rangers. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were beginning to push 30, the roster was populated by guys like Daniel Winnik, Nick Spaling, Blake Comeau, Max Lapierre and Steve Downie and, as the storyline went, there wasn’t much talent at the AHL level to get excited about.
Two years later, eight of the players who had dressed for Wilkes-Barre in the 2015 Calder Cup playoffs – Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney, Brian Dumoulin, Tom Kuhnhackl, Josh Archibald and Matt Murray – all skated for the Penguins during a 2017 post-season that saw the team become the first in 19 years to win consecutive Cups. And the AHL coach from 2015 was the guy behind the bench for both, crafting a playing style and mindset that rejuvenated Crosby and Malkin, not to mention veterans Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist.
The window many thought had been closing has been flung wide open in just 24 months, thanks in part to Mike Sullivan and those players as well as a third-round pick who was playing college hockey back in 2015 (Jake Guentzel) and a completely different cast of players brought from other NHL addresses to Pittsburgh, including Phil Kessel, Justin Schultz, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley.
Some of those NHL vets will not be back next season, as Cullen seems headed for retirement and Bonino and Daley are unrestricted free agents heading into a summer when teams will be challenged to build their 2017-18 roster under what looks like a flat salary cap.
But the Penguins should remain among the short list of Cup favorites for the next several seasons.
2017-18 is Bright
They go into 2017-18 carrying five players – Rust, Guentzel, Wilson, Rowney and Kuhnhackl – with cap hits under $750,000, which is a virtual requirement for teams loaded with big salaries like the one managed by Jim Rutherford. Sheary, Dumoulin and Schultz are restricted free agents and will be re-signed with deserved raises and terms pushing out several seasons, while Archibald and Oskar Sundqvist are restricted free agents.
Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Olli Maatta and Kris Letang are all signed for another five years or more, and Murray has another three years left at what you can now say is a ridiculous $3.7 million cap hit.
That is what you call strength down the middle.
Rutherford has an interesting call to make with restricted free agent Derrick Pouliot and probably would like to bring unrestricted free agent Chad Ruhwedel back if possible. He will be thinking about next summer, too, when Cole and Hornqvist are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
But the main ingredients of the last two Cup runs remain in place, to say nothing of the experienced gained by the many players who contributed to both. Two first-ballot Hall of Famers at center, a young goaltender who has already re-written the NHL history books, an incredibly promising sniper in Guentzel and a perennial playoff scorer in Kessel. Letang will come back anxious to make his mark in the playoffs after missing the 2017 run. Sullivan is going nowhere, and given his instincts with young players, he may be calling on Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese to make an impact in the near future.
Should Cullen retire and the Penguins not re-sign Bonino, the only legitimate question about their lineup short-term would be whether Rowney and Sundqvist can take those roles on an everyday basis – something they’ve never done at this level. If not, Rutherford will likely be required to hit the trade market.
In two short years, the Penguins have completely re-shaped their future. Maybe a few people around the NHL chuckled when Sullivan capped the 2016 Cup parade by talking about meeting Pittsburgh fans for another one in 2017, but when he openly wondered about a three-peat after the parade yesterday, I doubt anyone in the league was laughing.