In the days leading up to the start of the 1983-84 season, Pittsburgh Penguins players were adamant that predictions about how miserable their winter would be were hopelessly off-target.
They sounded genuinely convinced that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom inside the industry, they would seriously challenge for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They were wrong.
So were most of the people who had offered dire projections of how the Penguins’ season would play out, because it proved to be even worse than almost anyone hsd imagined.
Those Penguins finished with a 16-58-6 record, and had been all but mathematically eliminated from playoff consideration by Thanksgiving. (Canadian Thanksgiving, for that matter.) The only surprise, given how they overmatched they were on a regular basis, might be that they actually managed to accrue 38 points.
The point of this history lesson is not to revive memories of that night terror of a season for the few people who actually paid attention to the Penguins in those days, but to underscore how optimism fuels pretty much NHL club as a new season approaches.
Rebuilding teams insist they will challenge for a playoff berth if things break just right for them. Those that sat out the postseason are convinced that changes made since spring will be enough to get them in. And playoff clubs have no doubt they are on the cusp of contending for a championship.
Such an upbeat mindset is as understandable as it is unrealistic in some cases, so it’s not surprising that the Pittsburgh Penguins — just a few months removed from failing to get into the playoffs for the first time in 17 years — expect great things of themselves in 2023-24.
Consider a sampling of the responses offered by players when asked what the ceiling for this team is:
Reilly Smith: “Stanley Cup. That’s always the ceiling.”
Bryan Rust: “There is no ceiling. That’s kind of the mindset we need to have.”
Jake Guentzel: “Win it all. That’s everyone’s goal, to lift the Stanley Cup.”
There is, of course, legitimate cause for such positive outlooks. President of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has brought in the incumbent Norris Trophy winner (Erik Karlsson), a prominent member of the defending Stanley Cup champions (Smith) and a handful of capable blue-collar forwards to bolster the third and fourth lines.
In the process, Dubas has infused the entire organization with enthusiasm and energy that had waned in recent years, rekindling hope — and, more important, belief — that the franchise can be much more than an afterthought in the league at a time when Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang figure to be approaching the twilight of their careers.
That doesn’t mean there is a sixth Cup — or another Eastern Conference title, or even a Metropolitan Division championship — in their immediate future, but the suggestion that this team is a viable threat to return to the playoffs and possibly win a round or two (something it hasn’t managed since 2018) is now more likely to be met with an affirming nod than a derisive snicker.
There is, of course, no guarantee that these Pittsburgh Penguins will attain any meaningful success, because there are so many variables that influence the course a season follows.
They likely will be the oldest team in the NHL (again), so lost-time injuries and simple fatigue could become more of a concern for some of their most prominent thirtysomethings than they are for a typical NHLer. What’s more, the Metro and East look to be ultra-competitive, and with each conference’s playoff field limited to eight teams, it’s pretty much certain than some quality teams simply won’t be able to qualify for the playoffs.
But those realities are for the weeks and months to come. Now is the time to believe that anything is possible, no matter how improbable it might seem to others.
“We have to believe in here that the sky’s the limit,” Rust said. “If you’re not thinking that way — if you’re not thinking that anything’s possible — I don’t think you should be in here.”