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Realistic Penguins Goals; Is it Worth Talking About Another Stanley Cup?

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sulivan
Mike Sullivan

The Stanley Cup is the reason they play the game. To win is the only goal for players, coaches, and executives. But is it the Pittsburgh Penguins’ realistic goal within the near or even intermediate future?

Well, no.

The Penguins hoisted three trophies. Sidney Crosby flexed his muscles with a pair of Conn Smythe trophies. Evgeni Malkin has etched his name on the same trophy, and the crew, with Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, and a few others, will walk together forever.

Penguins fans aren’t usually ones for nostalgia, unless it involves Fleury returning. While crosstown neighbors, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the faithful drip in nostalgia for the 1970s and Super Bowl trophies, Penguins fans have always been about what’s next.

What’s next isn’t as much fun. There are no parades or magazine covers.

There is not now nor should there be shame if the core of the Penguins never again lifts that glorious 34 pounds of silver. Sure, president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas will try. Crosby will drag his team forward with all his might. And stranger things have happened.

In 2009, Tom Watson played in the final pairing of the British Open at 59 years old. In 1991, 39-year-old Jimmy Connors made it to the U.S. Open semi-final.

There are moments when the greats defy age for a moment, taking fans on a nostalgia-filled joyride, adding pages to the already full scrapbook.

It’s possible.

Perhaps Erik Karlsson will turn up the heat next season, and Tristan Jarry will find his true potential and claim the net without stumbling late in the season. Malkin will strengthen his legs, and we will again see that gallop. And sure, Dubas could work magic with the roster, turning superfluous veterans into invaluable cogs that fill one net and protect the other.

Perhaps the hockey gods will visit coach Mike Sullivan in his sleep with an epiphany that redefines the game like the Penguins did in 2016 when they skated circles around the league.

Sure, it could happen. But it probably won’t.

And therein lies the next chapter of the Pittsburgh Penguins. It should be enough just to make the playoffs and to be competitive. Perhaps fans must learn to enjoy the journey instead of demanding the highest result.

Struggling and fighting to be in the top half is where it’s headed, and it will be that way for a good while.

The Philadelphia Flyers haven’t won in my lifetime, they haven’t lifted the Stanley Cup since Gerald Ford was president. I’ll give you a moment to snicker. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been perennially competitive but haven’t lifted the Stanley Cup since Lyndon Johnson secretly sent troops into Laos under the umbrella of the Vietnam War and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

I only vaguely remember the New York Islanders dynasty. Buffalo, Winnipeg, Florida, San Jose, and Nashville have waited decades to see Lord Stanley dance upon their streets.

The Florida Panthers should deliver on that promise this week, but should the rest fold? Should fans turn off the TV, forgo their tickets, and hang a banner, “Call me when we win the Cup”?

Of course not. It’s a matter of perspective. As Florida prepares for their first Cup after more than 30 years in the league, and others watch wistfully, hoping their team will soon have their turn, it becomes a matter of rooting for the next step.

The Penguins had their turn on center stage. If they didn’t keep trying to win it, they would be rightfully booed out of the building, but watching the Cup Final unfold, the thought occurs that success for the Penguins must be redefined. Understanding their current situation is why Dubas said he’s hunting for more draft picks and prospects.

Unfortunately, understanding the Penguins’ situation also means adjusting external expectations.

It means taking solace in little victories and lower expectations. It means rooting for the young players without expecting them to save the team; there are no players in the pipeline nearly capable of that. It means rooting for Dubas to properly execute his plan, whether that is to retool or rebuild or something in the middle.

Right now, Dubas’s plan seems to be the impossible dichotomy of building for the future while supporting the current team.

As fans of the Generation Next team of the early 2000s found, there can be joy in the hockey and players without the glory. There’s no nobility in shunning a team that has already won three Stanley Cups.

None of the above means we’ll ease up on coverage or expectations to be successful. Florida retooled on the fly with a bevy of trades and bargain-free agents. The process took only a couple or few years.

That’s the goal, and that’s the standard by which it makes sense to judge Dubas, but it doesn’t yet make sense to judge the Penguins, Crosby or even Dubas by the Stanley Cup standard any longer.