Old habits die hard. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the premier destination for talented players since Eddie Johnston drafted Mario Lemiuex in 1984, and the Penguins began adding talent like Paul Coffey. Since then, rental Hall of Fame and flavor of the moment players like Luc Robitaille, Marian Hossa, Jarome Iginla, and Derick Brassard have rolled through the Penguins lineup. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a single report beyond a wonderfully fake Twitter account which tied the Penguins to former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall who could have a new address any moment now.
Things have changed in Pittsburgh, and the organization understands if they want a party on Fifth Ave, the biggest name won’t necessarily produce the biggest results. Players who buy-in and fit the team concept are the new sexy.
Believe it or not, the Penguins did not win any of their five Stanley Cups with a big-budget rental player. Instead, think of names like Bill Guerin, who was the end of his career, and Gary Roberts. And the Penguins were taught an invaluable lesson last April when a team (New York Islanders) who supposedly lost their franchise player (John Tavares) mopped the floor with the Penguins.
And New York knew they would do it, too, because they believed in the team game and knew the Penguins weren’t one. The lesson the Islanders taught the Penguins went well beyond just playing a team game; it’s about building a team.
“Our guys have rallied around (the injuries). They’ve taken it upon themselves as a challenge and their expectation is, ‘we’re going to win.’ And nobody is looking for excuses,” head coach Mike Sullivan said on Saturday. “We believe we have enough in the lineup to win games. We still have difference-makers in the lineup.”
The question was about the team response to the ridiculous amount of injuries but its applicable here, too.
In the summer, the Penguins said good-bye to a very talented offensive player and said hello Brandon Tanev on the free-agent market. You don’t think it’s luck the Penguins are competing hard nearly every night, despite a gutted lineup, do you?
It also wasn’t a coincidence the Penguins played their best hockey of the season last March without several star players. Do not misunderstand. Star players are still essential to Stanley Cup success, but team concept wins out; like the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins championship which was four lines of speed and determination.
It was not an uncommon or unpopular sentiment for fans on social media and talk radio callers to espouse the opinion, “The Penguins need a scoring winger. Go all-in for Taylor Hall!”
It’s true. The Penguins could use another finisher somewhere in the lineup. It’s unlikely Bryan Rust will score 40 goals, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Alex Galchenyuk will find his groove with the Penguins and begin scoring at anything resembling a 20-goal pace.
And so the Penguins letter to Santa probably included a case of Vitamin-C and a scoring winger. But it will be one who fits the Penguins identity and who will buy-in.
Taylor Hall Cost
In addition to the perils of adding the big name, those big names cost assets. It sounds like the price for Hall is a first-round pick, an NHL player, and an NHL-ready player. As Boston Hockey Now reported Saturday, that NHL player couldn’t be “just a throw-in.”
Salary cap issues aside, the Penguins are approaching their future. It just doesn’t behoove them to mortgage the future for the big name anymore. Mainly because it has been proven to them that the big name doesn’t mean Stanley Cup. The 2020 Draft will again be a deep draft with players who can contribute sooner than later.
The Arizona Coyotes are reportedly the front runner. They’re a team which lacks talent and needs to make that kind of move. Someday, the Penguins will again be healthy, and will not lack talent.
A couple of years ago, the Penguins might have done something crazy. Multiple fan suggestions included Poulin, a first-round pick (they don’t have a second-rounder), and Matt Murray. For many reasons, that’s a bad idea, but we’ll ignore the Matt Murray debate for the moment.
The point is the Penguins just don’t need to do that anymore. It doesn’t benefit them to have a talented player with a game that differs from theirs and to spend multiple important assets which would cripple their future to obtain that player.
And the biggest paradigm shift is: Now they know it.