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Molinari: Penguins Must Face Reality After Long, Fabulous Run

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

It is time — well past it, really — for the Pittsburgh Penguins to acknowledge what became apparent to many a few years ago.

This team is not a viable Stanley Cup contender.

Not even close.

Hasn’t been since probably 2018. Maybe 2019, if one wants to be charitable.

Oh, it’s had the potential for a little playoff success in every season since its back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017, because a team whose roster is headlined by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel, among others, is capable of winning a best-of-seven from any opponent.

Yes, any opponent.

But doing it four times in a row?

Hardly.

That, of course, is what winning a Stanley Cup requires.  And winning the Cup has been the Penguins’ unwavering objective — stated firmly and frequently from all levels of the organization — for the better part of two decades.

That commitment is a big part of the reason they earned three titles between 2009 and 2017; they went all-in, all the time, unflinchingly sacrificing pieces of their future for an enhanced shot at glory in the present.

Sometimes, it paid off.

Others, it didn’t.

Regardless of the outcome, though, that ultra-aggressive approach always was understandable, and generally was admirable.

Management knew it had a core that was capable of great things and, within the limitations imposed by the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling, routinely sought to bolster the supporting cast as much as possible.

It always was done with the knowledge that regularly trading early-round draft choices and an occasional quality prospect would have a negative long-term impact, but that doing so made sense because the window to legitimately contend would not stay open indefinitely.

And now, it undeniably has closed.

The future has arrived.

If the owners and front office are willing to admit it, the process of trying to construct the next generation of Cup-capable teams here can begin.

That doesn’t necessitate the Penguins devolving into the kind of comically inept misfits they were in the days before Mario Lemieux arrived in 1984, or even the earnest, but overmatched, group they were for part of the early 2000s.

Such a flameout simply can’t happen with the personnel and organizational structure the Penguins have in place now.

Ron Hextall, as evidenced by his work in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, is eminently qualified to oversee a rebuild of whatever magnitude the decision-makers determine is appropriate for the franchise’s long-term interests.

Now, it’s possible that executives of the Fenway Sports Group, which has been the Penguins’ primary owner for less than a half-year, will determine that they want to install their own people in all positions of significant authority within the organization.

That is FSG’s right, obviously, but it doesn’t mean that replacing Hextall would be prudent.

If the owners find someone with a documented ability to handle the challenges facing the Pittsburgh Penguins more effectively than Hextall has shown he can do, then it would be easy to justify a change.

If not, FSG should be patient and trust that he will restore some of the luster that lost during five consecutive playoff-series losses.

Hextall’s most immediate challenge is to figure out which of his high-profile unrestricted-free-agents-to-be — Bryan Rust, Rickard Rackell, Malkin and Letang — are the priorities to try to retain, and how much cap space he’s willing to relinquish in the process.

It’s inconceivable that he’d be able to keep all of them — there’s an infinitely better chance that none will return than that all will — and it wouldn’t necessarily be wise, even if the money somehow worked.

Remember, the Penguins haven’t won a series since Round 1 in 2018; they’re not going to suddenly morph into a Cup threat simply because key players in their mid-30s like Malkin and Letang decide to stick around.

And while the Penguins don’t often pursue big-money free agents, if Hextall decides to explore that route, he might find it to be a bit tougher than in previous years because guys who might have been lured here by the chance to take a run at a Cup will recognize that their odds of doing so now are better elsewhere.

The most compelling argument, at least on an emotional level, against finally focusing on something other than short-term goals is that Crosby, who will be 35 next season, does not deserve to close out his career watching the team around him being retooled.

If franchise officials would conclude that that is, indeed, the appropriate course, it would only be fair to offer Crosby the opportunity to play out the final three seasons of his contract elsewhere, at a destination of his choosing.

It’s hard to imagine that even the deepest, most talented contenders in the league wouldn’t gleefully clear the cap space needed to take on his $8.7 million cap hit.

Of course, it’s even harder to imagine that Crosby — with his great sense of, and respect for, hockey history and his loyalty to this region and franchise — would consider leaving for so much as a nanosecond.

He has spent his 17-season pro career responding to, and overcoming, challenges, and owns a gaudy collection of Cup rings, Olympic gold medals and individual awards that testifies to his success.

Taking on the job of helping to hone and develop the Penguins’ next generation of Cup-contending teams just might be the perfect bookend to a career that began when he was part of a group of young guys — Marc-Andre Fleury and, a year later, Malkin and Jordan Staal — who led the franchise to so much glory for so many years.

The future is now, but the past never will be forgotten.

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Chase Cranson
Chase Cranson
1 month ago

Keep Rust then sign who can support the other 3 lines let the free agents go and get a goalkeeper who can stay healthy trade anyone that can make that happen Hextall may be gone too

charmaine dawso
charmaine dawso
1 month ago

what a great read……..as much as i would love for Malkin and Letang to retire as Penguins, reading this makes me understand the need to move on and hopefully be a contender in the near future…and i, too, cannot see Crosby ever being anything but a Penguin—-he’s still the best in this fan’s eyes.

Crosby32746@yahoo.com
Crosby32746@yahoo.com
1 month ago

Rust and Malkin are gone. Hopefully they sign Letang for 9-10 for three years than blow it up FSG. Sully will still win playing his defensive system that he used earlier in the year. Would like to see Rackell for 4.5 as well. I just hope they get rid of Hextall as he didn’t exactly build a contender in Philly!

BocaMarine
BocaMarine
1 month ago

He didn’t get a chance to build a contender in Philly He was fired 4 years into his 5 year rebuild because of a difference of opinion with his boss, Paul Holmgren, who wanted to bring in older veterans like Mike Richards. Mike Richards!

Sal Governale
Sal Governale
1 month ago

I just don’t understand people who think Letang helps this team. Sometimes I genuinely wonder if people are watching a different team than I am. Maybe it’s different on TV, but seeing every home game live for the last 6 years, I just don’t get it. He was literally one of the worst players on the ice in that NYR series. Constantly getting beat, getting caught too deep, chasing the puck below the goal line even when the low F is covering the puck, screening his G, playing the puck on odd-mans. Then there’s the O-zone. The slightest bit of… Read more »

DiegoPittFan
DiegoPittFan
1 month ago

Great one Dave. Spot on and not a perspective that will be found on your former employer’s page. Keep up the good work.

charmaine dawso
charmaine dawso
1 month ago
Reply to  DiegoPittFan

so very true, DiegoPittFan

Brad
Brad
1 month ago

Malkin will stay at a pay cut, probably in the 7 mil range. Hopefully that 2 mil saved is enough to give to rust to offer a 5 mil per contract to keep him. Letang had his best year # wise, he won’t take a cut. If Matheson and dumolin can be a pair, then the top 4 are good with Marino and pettersons play. Wonder if ufa fluery would come back, be a lower salary then he could get elsewhere though. Be a better backup and take some of the demand for games to be played by jarry. Kapanen… Read more »

Matt
Matt
1 month ago

It would make me physically ill if we traded Crosby. I agree with Chase. I would sign Rust as the top priority.

Paul
Paul
1 month ago

I don’t buy that this team has to take a step back before it can move forward again. In fact, a shrewd GM (read: not the current one) could turn this team into a legit contender next season. It’s obvious what the needs are, and there may be as much as $28 mil available to fill them. This isn’t a great UFA class, but there will be talent (and some potential bargains) out there. A few solid signings coupled with a few solid trades could make it happen. But only if the company wonks tune out the past and think… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Paul
Justin
Justin
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul

I agree people are going way overboard with all these total rebuild comments. With almost 30 mil in cap space they can do a soft rebuild/retool around Crosby and Guentzel and be legit contenders. With Crosby playing at a high level there’s always a chance.

Dean
Dean
1 month ago

Couldn’t disagree more on the core. Our problem is with 1. back-up goaltending 2. defense and 3. supporting forward talent. Goaltending – Fluery could be the answer if he would take $2.5M or less to be back with the gang Defense – we need to move Petterson, Marino, and Dumoulin. You may not get much, but clear the space. We need a couple of larger shut-down defensemen. They tend to be more affordable than those three, We also need to play Joseph! Don’t sign Rodriques. Trade Kappy and Heinen (RFAs). Buyout Zucker and clear space (the pain is only $1.7M… Read more »

mstar80
mstar80
1 month ago
Reply to  Dean

Letang isn’t looking for a pay cut, he already gave one for the past 7 years. Letang wants 9-10 a year I would guess. I think it will take 7m a year for 3 years for Malkin. If you sign Malkin, say goodbye to Rust. I believe Letang won’t be back.

Dean
Dean
1 month ago
Reply to  mstar80

that is not a pay cut. It is an extension of exactly what his old contract was. 9-10 years for a 35-year-old. Not sure what or who you are listening to.

Sal Governale
Sal Governale
1 month ago
Reply to  Dean

Don’t sign ERod. He only played every possible role for this team and did it well. First line center? Sure, he’ll just bury the puck in the net at a ridiculous rate. Checking line pivot? ✔️ PK? ✔️ PP? ✔️ clutch playoff performance? ✔️ value contract? ✔️. “But he disappeared from the score sheet!”. Going from guys like Guentzel on his wing to Brock McGinn, ZAR, Simon, and Lafferty might have something to do with that. Aside from the fact that he was being deployed in a defensive role for 3/4 of the season.

AnthonyB
AnthonyB
1 month ago

Face the reality of what? Letting some of our best players walk for nothing to play who? Poulin & Lagare? They played good hockey they didn’t lose in 4 or 5 games as anyone expected with the sub par goaltending they had to work with. Last year they played good as well…. but but but they lost. Losing sucks.. sore loser is worse!

Rhodepop
Rhodepop
1 month ago

I don’t see how the Pens can compete with the $ AND term that Letang may get from other teams. Rust will get overpaid as well. Malkin may get large $ but the guy has missed a lot of games in recent seasons. He would be my pick for coming back only because of the $ involved. When I look at this team, I see little to offer other teams in trades. Before this season, Dumo would have brought in a nice haul but he went all Steve Blass on us this year. No one will take the UPMC frequent… Read more »

Marc Badger
Marc Badger
1 month ago

Burkie finally gonna grab a few HEAVIER boys for the Pens ??

Cal
Cal
1 month ago

Thankyou for the refreshing reality check. Keep up the good work Dave !

J Jergins
J Jergins
1 month ago

This is no longer a Stanley Cup team, and that’s ok.

Brandon o
Brandon o
1 month ago

As constructed, there is simply no feasible way to make this team into a contender for next year. An otherwise good team has been derailed by below average goaltending for two straight playoffs, but let’s not pretend they were capable of taking on the Lightning, Panthers, or Avalanche. The true contenders are deeper, and have younger superstars. They deserved better, perhaps a 2nd round or conference runner up showing, but anything more was a remote possibility. Crosby at 34, will be playing at a high level for another 3 years. One year of retooling isnt going to completely sink his… Read more »

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
1 month ago

I’d definitely move on from Malkin. He did not rise to the occasion when Sid missed Game 6, and in my opinion was AWOL I in Game 7. An $8m dollar man needs to have a bigger effect on the game than he does. Hard decisions on the others, but freeing up cap space could bring in quality players instead of retreads or reclamation projects.

Fredrick
Fredrick
1 month ago

I think with a lot of the free agents potentially available, we could potentially build a solid team for next season. They may not be superstar players, but one could potentially be had via trade. I think from reading some of the articles on the ownership group, that they will be looking for a more aggressive offseason

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
1 month ago

Tough decisions, I think they only sign one of these guys-which contract becomes the Albatross in 3 years? That would be either Letang or Rust- makes it hard to keep either but they also need those guys. Good luck

David
David
1 month ago

It really doesn’t matter who stays or leaves as it pertains to winning another championship. It won’t happen.

Kathy
Kathy
29 days ago

Pens signed Rust, Rakell will be in Sweden. I read this article twice; so much negativity in it. I know what your saying but really? Must every article I read out of a Pittsburgh paper be negative? I’m sure over the years the Penguins aren’t the only team who has stumbled.

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