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Molinari: Hardest Part Still Ahead for Penguins



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, NHL news

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ season is over.

So is their run of 16 consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Now comes the fallout from their failure.

And it’s not going to end anytime soon.

It probably won’t go on for, oh, 16 years, but when a team has slid as far as the Penguins have since winning Cups in 2016 and 2017 — even if that decline was perfectly natural and predictable — there are sure to be repercussions.

Major ones.

Everyone associated with the on-ice product figures to have their performance evaluated by someone higher up in the organization and, as evidenced by today’s firings of Ron Hextall, Brian Burke and Chris Pryor, some will lose their jobs.

Update: The Pittsburgh Penguins fired Hextall, Burke and Pryor shortly before 11:30 a.m. Friday morning. No successors were named. Coach Mike Sullivan is part of the transition team.

Some players will be traded, and others won’t have their expiring contracts renewed.

Missing the playoffs comes at a high price, and there’s no shortage of people who appear to be in danger of paying it.

But moving personnel — be they decision-makers or players or whoever — in and out will be the easy part of the challenge facing the Penguins. And the quick one.

That’s because, for the better part of the past two decades, this has been a destination franchise, a place where most players were delighted to be traded, and where free agents could be lured by more than money.

Part of that is because the Penguins earned a reputation for treating players and their families in a first-class manner.

Their team flights have long been chartered (not commercial) and hotel accommodations on the road have been consistently top-shelf for a lot of years.

That obviously appeals on a personal level, and it’s become the norm in the NHL.

The Penguins, whether the GM was Ray Shero, Jim Rutherford or Hextall, also have proven to be understanding when players have personal issues that require time away from work, whether it’s the birth of a child or the death of a grandparent.

All of that has worked in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ favor when they were trying to sign a free agent or persuade a player to waive his no-trade clause so that he could come here.

But the biggest attraction to joining the Penguins for much of the past two decades was the opportunity to contend for a Stanley Cup.

How realistic that was during recent seasons can be debated — the belief here was that the Penguins should have begun moving into their next phase a year ago, if not sooner — but there were plenty of people who felt that anything was possible when a team was constructed around the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Now that the Penguins have missed the playoffs (after losing five consecutive series in the postseason), it’s hard to believe that any player would see coming here as leading to a legitimate shot to earn a ring.

Frankly, the greatest attraction Crosby and Malkin might have to free agents now would be if guys want to someday tell their grandchildren that they shared a locker room with a couple of Hall of Famers.

That doesn’t mean that whoever the GM is in July won’t be able to get some free agents under contract. Heck, guys sign with pretty much every team every year.

But it’s hard to imagine the chance to compete for a Cup will be a valid selling point, which means it might cost a little more to reach an agreement than it would have when the Penguins could sell chasing a championship.

And when a team spends to the salary-cap ceiling on an annual basis, odds are it won’t have the cap space required to pay anything more than market value to fill a spot on its depth chart.

The catch, of course, is that the Penguins have made long-term commitments to Malkin and Letang and surely will do likewise with Crosby if he wants to continue playing after his current deal expires in two years.

That means whoever is in charge will be trying to deft staggering odds to construct a group capable of winning at least a playoff series or two.

Mind you, the Penguins weren’t a bad team in 2022-23; just an underachieving one. The sentiment inside the organization seems to be that they gave away at least 10 points they should have picked up, and that seems like a conservative estimate.

But even if they had gotten into the playoffs, there was little reason to think they would have lasted for long. Really good every now and then isn’t nearly good enough.

While getting back into the postseason in 2024 figures to be extremely difficult — young teams like Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit are on an upward trajectory and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ most important players will be deeper into their mid-30s — it’s not out of the question, because this team is better than it showed in 2022-23.

But it isn’t a Cup contender, and can’t be turned into one anytime soon.