Pittsburgh Hockey Now opened the mailbag on Monday. Perhaps it was the dreary, rainy day or a case of the Mondays, but the DM’d questions, and the public questions had one theme. The future of the Penguins, with a subset of doubts, questions, and support for the futures of Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff streak.
Accepting the reality that salary caps were meant to force cyclical struggles is hard. Hindsight points the way for exits already gone by to avoid the coming ride on the struggle bus.
Spending assets to keep winning and the post-fallout wisdom is like that extra shot of tequila. In the moment, it tastes like gold, and the party will never end. In the morning, you wonder why your underwear is in the tree, and your head feels like your friends used Wiffle bats as you were the pinata (because it was hilarious in the moment).
Unrelated note, I will forever miss my college days.
Sure, it’s easy to say those shots of tequila were a bad idea when you have crackers and ginger ale for lunch, but the chance to keep winning is more intoxicating than anything. Worry about it later!
Now is later.
Why are people so upset and unrealistic about the Pens over the next few years when history shows this is eventually what happens to teams that consistently win for an extended period of time?
— As_I_see_it (@Scrivener1A) August 16, 2021
The winning hangover is never easy. That’s the simple answer. The other answers are the tougher ones to deal with. Everyone is smarter; perfection of hindsight only makes matters worse. Former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford made a few decisions that you can second-guess now.
*Trading Marc-Andre Fleury instead of Matt Murray, who was worth a mint on the NHL trade market.
*Not trading Evgeni Malkin when Florida was in buy-now mode in 2019.
*Trading first-round picks for David Perron, Derrick Brassard, and Jason Zucker.
*Prematurely dishing long-term contracts to young defensemen Marcus Pettersson and John Marino.
The Penguins also splashed first-rounders on the Toronto Maple Leafs to acquire Phil Kessel (2016) and again for Kasperi Kapanen (2020). Those seemingly worked out, but two out of five trades for prized picks isn’t a good average.
We could go on, but the point is–the chance to win now trumps losing later for most. What seems reasonable at the moment comes with a heavy cost later. Remember the criticism the Pittsburgh Steelers faced when they didn’t go all-out in free agency despite having a Super Bowl-caliber team under Bill Cowher? The Pittsburgh Pirates’ failure to take those shots of tequila and go for it permanently damaged a lot of faith and trust in the organization after 98 wins in 2015.
Each situation is different, but the Pittsburgh Penguins soothed the savage beast of fandom by indeed shouting, “Shots!”
Eventually, the bill comes due.
The hangover hits.
It always hurts.
No sports team in the cap era, except for the New England Patriots, has been able to sustain consistent winning without rebuilding. And without Tom Brady, perhaps their time is up, too.
Not even the 1970s Steelers were exempt from the immutable laws of sports. Terry Bradshaw didn’t come back to Pittsburgh for decades because of his soured relationship with the organization and fans. Franco Harris had the ill-fated stint with the Seattle Seahawks, though both sides put bygones behind them. Others stayed well past their primes, and the super Steelers were the mediocre Steelers in the 1980s.
Evgeni Malkin, especially, seems to be teetering on the verge of a dubious ending, too. If he stays, fans may be less than kind. If he goes, fans will be less than kind…
Malkin seems to be taking the lionshare of the angst and anger. Letang is a solid second place on that list.
It’s all possible. But not likely.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are odds-on favorites to make the playoffs this season, according to Vegas bookmakers. But they’re not overwhelming betting favorites. They have about the same odds as the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers–two teams that missed the playoffs last season.
But what if they don’t? How will the former conquering heroes be treated by the fanbase? The guess here is with a broom and a kick.
Legacies will be redefined by emotion and disappointment.
The Penguins probably will miss the playoffs sooner than later. Perhaps GM Ron Hextall has an ace up his sleeve. A shrewd move or three and Sidney Crosby playing until he’s 50 could keep the Penguins streak going longer than we expect. Perhaps prospect wizard, Penguins AGM Chris Pryor and the new Hextall team hit home runs with a few prospects in the next 12 months, too.
I don’t know how this column came to be such an analogous reference to alcohol, but it seems to fit. Usually, there are only two ways out–the hair of the dog or deal with the pain now.
You’re right to fear the pain. Perhaps Hextall can avoid it to some degree, or perhaps it’s a wicked rebuild-type pain. But the upside, for every person who laments the availability of affordable tickets, they should be easier to get if it all goes south.