Penguins Too Old; Malkin Says NHL for Young Players, New Generation
The Pittsburgh Penguins failed Tuesday night. The NHL’s oldest team lost to the NHL’s worst team despite a chance to solidify their playoff quest. The Penguins will be asked a lot of tough questions over the coming days, but the most bluntly honest human in the Penguins’ locker room, Evgeni Malkin, may have confronted the team’s fundamental flaw Tuesday in a way no other player could.
Did GM Ron Hextall build a team that was too old to compete consistently?
Malkin steered into the skid on a horribly awkward night for the players. They bombed the biggest game of the year, then participated in the final home game ceremonies in which they tossed t-shirts into the crowd and gave away their jersey to lottery-winning fans.
Following that, a few players had to face the media. PHN+ subscribers can see the raw videos and read the whole story.
Malkin acknowledged what many Penguins fans feared. The inference was loud and clear, even if he didn’t say it specifically.
“I think we tried so hard. We tried everything. I try to play hard every game, you know,” Malkin said. “But the league is young. They play so hard. It’s a new generation. It’s coming.
“We try to play hard, but it’s probably like, I don’t know, it’s like …” Malkin said without finishing the thought.
In words spoken and in the unspoken void, Malkin said everything that could be said from the inside. A star player who signed a four-year deal at 35 said young teams compete “so hard,” and the new generation is coming. Malkin also said his team tries to play hard, but…
That there was a “but” after “we try to play hard” should tell us everything we need to know about the Penguins’ 2022-23 NHL season.
Tuesday, 12 of the Penguins’ 18 skaters were over 30. If Nick Bonino were cleared to play, it would have been 13. Among players signed for next season and beyond, Jake Guentzel will be 29 before next season, and Rickard Rakell will turn 30 next month.
Bryan Rust is already on the other side of 30.
Only Ryan Poehling, P.O Joseph, Drew O’Connor, and Alex Nylander are Penguins 25 and under. Poehling and Nylander will be RFAs this summer. Depth defenseman Mark Friedman is 27.
The roster is experienced.
As this writer noted several times throughout the season, it wasn’t the Penguins’ age that made them old. It was the spirit. They had too much perspective and too little fear. They knew they were good, and brushing off the bad performances was always too easy.
From the beginning, they lacked the intensity of youth. That glaring issue was never addressed, nor was a substitute added.
There are other old teams. The Boston Bruins won the President’s Trophy this season, and the Washington Capitals were decimated by injury before beginning a retool at the NHL trade deadline. Washington has been eliminated from the playoff contention.
In the salary cap era, older teams like the 2008 Detroit Red Wings, with an average age of 32.1, won the Stanley Cup. The 2012 New Jersey Devils averaged just over 30 years old and made it to the Cup Final.
Those teams didn’t lack intensity, energy, or heart.
The Penguins did.
The absence of those sparks made it difficult, if not impossible, to find their best against bad teams. Kris Letang took aim at the Penguins’ mindset in those games, which should also be another stinging rebuke to the team.
“And we have chances against teams that are not necessarily in a playoff spot, or kind of have nothing to lose, we don’t bring the same kind of demeanor, or we don’t play for 60 minutes,” Letang responded to PHN.
Before his 1000th game, Letang said the league is younger and evolving. He expressed optimism that he and the Penguins’ core, with Sidney Crosby and Malkin, were evolving with it.
Unfortunately for the team, one thing age teaches is the lack of importance of many things. The Penguins clearly didn’t have the necessary urgency or desire for most of the season, especially against lower teams. In the second half of the season, losses to the Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, and San Jose Sharks confirm Letang’s assertion.
Experience created an obtuse locker room, translating to their play on the ice.
For icing on the stale cake, the Penguins lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, the worst team in the NHL when a win was essential to the Penguins’ playoff hopes.
Most of the Penguins’ roster is under contract for next season, and their average age isn’t going down. In addition to the core players Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell, the list includes 38-year-old Jeff Carter, 31-year-old Mikael Granlund, 32-year-old Jan Rutta, and 35-year-old Jeff Petry.
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall will have a lot of work to do this summer to undo the old roster he’s created, and worse, he’ll probably have a longer off-season to do it.