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?
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.