The Sidney Crosby surgery in the weeks before training camp seemingly kicked open the door to concern and intense discussions about the biggest issue facing the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like most of you, I assume or assumed, the Penguins’ core would continue together for several more years until it ended naturally as the core players retired and Crosby played on until he was 40 or beyond.
It doesn’t feel like that today, does it?
Adding a little more curiosity or intrigue to the mix were Brian Burke’s comments published on Sportsnet. Burke hosted an annual fundraiser in Calgary and dished a quick Q&A. The following answer about delaying a Penguins rebuild caught me funny.
“This group is under contract for another year, and we’re going to keep seeing what we can do. We believe in the group,” Burke told Sportnet. “We’ve made the playoffs 15 straight years. We won two Cups, five and four years ago, and then we were eliminated in the first round the last three years. We’ve got to reverse that trend.”
One more year, and we’ll keep seeing what we can do? That’s open-ended.
That’s not the look ahead one would expect after GM Ron Hextall publicly stated at least twice that the Penguins would get to contract discussions with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in August.
By the way, it’s September, and neither player has a new deal to extend beyond this season. Nor does Patrice Bergeron in Boston, for that matter.
But what does “keep seeing what they can do” mean? And how do they reverse the trend of three straight first-round playoff exits?
For all of the consternation, analysis, and wonder about the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason activity or lack thereof, we may have been pretty close to pinning the tail when we opined this coming season would not be a “win now” but a “win if you can.”
Crosby’s wrist surgery seems unlikely to keep him out long term, and Hextall stated he didn’t expect to use the LTIR designation for either Crosby or Malkin, which means even Malkin should return in November.
So, the Penguins should be at full strength by U.S. Thanksgiving. Playoff hopes will hinge not on the Crosby and Evgeni Malkin surgeries but on the team’s ability to win games with the lineup currently assembled.
Does it seem to anyone else that the core has been given an unspoken–or spoken–ultimatum to win this season, or the Penguins will not get the band back together?
Count this space as one that expected the core to continue as Pittsburgh Penguins as long as they could, win or lose. And losing would eventually come, but the organization would do everything it could to transition instead of rebuild.
The question and parsing of Burke’s words make me severely question that assumption.
If the losing arrives, will Malkin and Letang depart, not necessarily by their own choice?
If the losing arrives, the Penguins also have a first-round choice in 2022, their first since 2019. That choice could get higher…and higher. If the Pittsburgh Penguins 15-year-playoff streak ends this season, that top pick becomes a lottery pick (though 2021 rules changes prohibit a team from moving up more than 10 spots, so to have a shot at the first overall pick, the Penguins would have to finish in the bottom 10).
“The End is Nigh” is an expression that supposedly comes from an Oxford resident who used to walk around with a sandwich board sporting the phrase that warned of the coming apocalypse.
Something happened on Wednesday that had similar undertones. Despite Crosby’s relatively short rehab and the prospect of missing only the first week or two of the NHL regular season, Penguins fans were marching around on social media with their own sandwich boards.
With Crosby out for a bit, and Evgeni Malkin out for a bit longer, the Penguins playoff hopes will take a little ding, but over an 82-game season, the first few weeks can be overcome. But the fear went deeper than simply a bad season.
Is this part of the plan? Let the players go for it, but also let attrition become a factor that forces a rebuild?
Two core players are under contract for one more year. It sure does seem like this season is the “show me” season and if the Penguins core can muster another run, they earn the rewards. If they can’t get past that first round, maybe the Penguins have all of the leverage in a contract discussion.
“So, you want to stay with the Pittsburgh Penguins for a few more years? Here’s what we can offer…”
It’s been a long time since Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang had to sing for their supper, but maybe the onus is on them to carry the team one more time, or to show they cannot thus allowing some decisions to make themselves.