The Pittsburgh Penguins are not oblivious to the realities of their situation.
They’re well aware that they haven’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since 2018. That some of their most prominent players would not look out of place in an old-timers’ game. That much of the hockey world regards them more as historical relics than Stanley Cup contenders.
But even if those truths might sting a bit, they don’t seem to have done even superficial damage to the Penguins’ collective confidence.
It’s not that there has been any chest-thumping during the first two-plus weeks of the preseason, any public proclamations that PPG Paints Arena management would be wise to clear space near the building’s ceiling for the banner that is destined to be raised there sometime in 2023.
Rather, it’s a quiet belief in the potential of the group that has permeated the locker room, infusing its occupants with a conviction that this team is genuinely capable of achieving some of the great things that have eluded it since 2017.
“We know we have a good group,” Bryan Rust said. “We’ve got a group that could have done something special last year. Obviously, there’s a fine line in the playoffs and things didn’t go our way there, in Game 7. We’ve brought back a lot of the same guys. I think we know we can get better. I know that we know that we have a pretty good group in here.”
The bottom line, of course, is that the Pittsburgh Penguins failed to protect a 3-1 lead against the New York Rangers during the opening round of the playoffs in May. Ultimately, results are all that matter.
But it was, overall, an impressive showing by the Penguins, considering that they played most of it without goalies Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith — you remember Louis Domingue, right? — top-six winger Rickard Rakell and No. 1 pairing defenseman Brian Dumoulin.
And that, despite all of that adversity, they were ahead in — and in control of — Game 5 when New York defenseman Jacob Trouba altered the course of the series by knocking Sidney Crosby out of the rest of that game and all of the one that followed with a well-placed hit to the head.
The series outcome aside, the Penguins’ strong showing against New York likely helped convince management to re-sign all of their key free agents — Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Rakell and Rust — and give the core collection of players a few more chances to chase a championship.
“We’re very familiar with each other,” Dumoulin said. “We have a lot of the same guys, the same group, we had last year, so we’re familiar with each other, which creates chemistry. We push each other pretty hard.”
Now, none of that guarantees the Penguins will earn the franchise’s sixth championship. Or anything else, for that matter. There are too many variables, too many things that can go wrong — or right — over the course of an 82-game season and playoff run to make predictions with a meaningful degree of certainty.
But intangibles are part of the equation, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are going into the season with the decidedly positive mindset.
“We feel good,” Jason Zucker said. “It’s a group now that’s been together for a couple of years and, obviously, this is the first ‘normal’ season we’ve had (since before the pandemic). so I think guys are excited about that.
“It’s good to have (Malkin) and those guys’ contracts sorted out and not have to worry about them. Now, we just need to play hockey. We’re excited for the year. It should be fun.”
A few other thoughts
*** A story out of New York a few days ago suggested that Trouba, recently appointed captain of the Rangers, had sought leadership advice from a CEO. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but given the way Trouba tends to go about his work, he seemed more likely to seek guidance from a corporate talent recruiter. You know, a head-hunter.
*** Crosby, who has first-hand (first-forearm, maybe?) knowledge of Trouba’s approach to his job, has three seasons remaining on a contract that will bring his career earnings to $159 million, according to CapFriendly.com. And that’s without factoring in anything he’s received from numerous endorsements, so it’s not likely that Crosby will have to seek out a position as a superstore greeter when he finally gives up the game.
Still, it’s hard to ignore that no fewer than 36 players around the league have salary-cap hits higher than Crosby’s $8.7 million. While it’s generally acknowledged that Crosby, at 35, has relinquished his spot as the NHL’s top player after a lengthy run, are we really supposed to believe that there are three dozen players worthy of earning more than he does?