Can these Pittsburgh Penguins really win another Stanley Cup?
The question is asked and answered, but with very different views on the PHN staff. Dan vs. Dave. The student and the master. The most important question the Penguins must answer is debated by Dave Molinari and Dan Kingerski.
Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and RIckard Rakell will be free agents in July. Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen will be RFAs in July. Penguins GM Ron Hextall has plenty of decisions that will shape the future and course of the Penguins.
And the primary question looms: Can they win a Cup or should they acknowledge their time is over and begin again?
Dave’s Opening Statement:
OK, let’s get this straight: A team that has lost five consecutive series — that hasn’t made it to the second round since 2018 — and has an aging core and major salary-cap limitations can somehow morph into a serious Stanley Cup threat by next spring? It’s hard to see how.
The best-case scenario for many Penguins fans seems to be that they’d find a way to retain their three most prominent unrestricted free agents — Malkin, Letang, and Rakell. That seems unlikely, but let’s say it works out and Ron Hextall manages to do it with the same cap space those three took up in 2021-22 ($20,357,501).
That, per CapFriendly.com, would leave the Penguins with $2,850,657 of cap space to re-sign — or replace — Kapanen, Heinen, Evan Rodrigues, Brian Boyle, Casey DeSmith and Nathan Beaulieu.
Since that wouldn’t be possible even if all agreed to work for the league minimum, Hextall obviously is going to have to cut the payroll somewhere. And while there is sentiment — outside the organization, anyway — to add cap space by trading Jason Zucker or John Marino or Marcus Pettersson, parting with one of them would create an opening on the second line or No. 2 defense pairing.
Given the Penguins’ limited pool of NHL-caliber prospects in Wilkes-Barre, there’s no guarantee an adequate replacement for any of them will come from the farm team. And if capable, let alone better, replacements are found elsewhere, changes are they will command similar salaries.
So, the Penguins — with a lineup that, at best, is roughly equal to the 2021-22 edition and several key guys a year deeper into their mid-30s — are suddenly going to be capable of winning four series? Uh, no.
As long as the Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and a top-line with the dynamism of Guentzel-Crosby-Rust, they have a championship foundation.
Add All-Star goalie Tristan Jarry, who showed his mettle by playing Game 7 on a not-yet-healed broken foot, with role players such as Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn, and the Penguins have real cornerstones. Only Crosby is north of 30-years-old.
Yep, Jarry stunk in the 2021 series against the New York Islanders, but he played a solid game trying to rescue the lifeless Penguins in the 2020 bubble against Montreal and was solid in Game 7, the most pressure-packed game of his career. He’ll be just fine in future postseasons.
With a little bit of luck, they would have been playing the Carolina Hurricanes in Round Two, and it certainly appears the Penguins could have won that series, too.
How far away are they, really? After 2009, they didn’t win many series, either. Did anyone see 2016 coming (I believe I was the first when I pointed that direction on Jan. 1, 2016, but not before)?
What happens with the rest of the lineup is in the hands of Hextall, whose decisions have thus far been precise. Openings in the middle-six and atop the Penguins’ blue line, at a time when other teams are sacrificing talent to meet the salary cap, provide real opportunity. The Penguins could easily go from “should haves” to contenders, again.
Put the right pieces around the Penguins’ foundation. With Crosby, they will always have a puncher’s chance. With a few more shrewd moves, it’s more possible than you think.
The simple truth is, the Penguins mortgaged their future to try to maximize their chances of winning a Cup for a lot of years, and have three banners to show for it.
There’s no reason to regret, or even second-guess, the decisions Ray Shero, Jim Rutherford and Hextall made to swap early-round draft choices and/or prospects for short-term roster upgrades, and the Penguins’ run of 16 consecutive playoff appearances is a remarkable feat in the salary-cap era, but it’s time for ownership and management to look beyond just the season ahead.
That doesn’t mean it is necessary to gut the roster or embark on a full-blown rebuild, but the Penguins’ decision-makers have to acknowledge that this group’s long run as a viable contender ended a few years ago, and begin making personnel moves that could give the franchise a future as promising as much of the past decade and a half have been.
No, those Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t won a series since 2018. They were thumped by a rigid systematic team in 2019, while internal “debates” with the coaching staff returned their team identity to the petulant Penguins. That problem was fixed.
2020? The bubble was–for some teams–a throwaway. Nothing to learn other than some players never thought it would happen and didn’t like being there.
2021 and 2022 can be laid on goaltending. Maybe special teams. And just bad luck. It happens. The 2021 New York Islanders went to Game 7 of the ECF. The 2022 New York Rangers lead the ECF 2-0. The Penguins didn’t exactly lose to teams that got swept out in the next round.
What if Louis Domingue doesn’t pop a long shot into his own net in Game 6? What if Marcus Pettersson’s helmet isn’t ripped off and the Penguins are forced to scramble in the defensive zone in Game 7? One or two moments and we’re having a much different conversation. That’s how narrow the margin between winning and losing.
That also means a couple of breaks–and they all went the Penguins’ way in 2016 and 2017–put the Penguins back in the conversation. Dave is correct, the Pittsburgh Penguins do not have much help coming from the WBS Penguins, and in my view, that only makes the present even more important.
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage against the dying of the light.
Dave: The Penguins have been a good team — usually, a very good team — for an awfully long time, and that is extremely impressive in the salary-cap era. But being a very good team is not the same as being a championship-caliber one.
The Penguins, as constituted in recent seasons, were capable of winning a best-of-seven from any — yes, any — opponent. It just wasn’t realistic to expect them to do it four times. If, as ownership and the front office insist, their objective is not simply to qualify for the playoffs but to win a Cup, it’s time to start making the hard decisions that will allow them to be a true contender in the not-too-distant future.
Dan: Hello, Detroit, Chicago, and LA. Once the rebuild begins, there is absolutely no guarantee the next Malkin or Letang is on deck. Teams held on too long and have suffered through protracted rebuilds. The Penguins have a unique situation and opportunity that those others did not have–they have the chance to retool around Crosby. Or, they can sign their aging core players to contracts that the team chooses, instead of albatross contracts signed long ago (see also, Chicago).
A rebuild is like a marathon. It sounds like fun until you’re halfway through it and there’s no end in sight. Hold on to the fleeting chance, because once it is gone, it could be a long, long time before it comes back around.
What say you, PHN readers, and our jury? Comment below.