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The Looming Decision: The Penguins Future Pitted Against the Past

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Malkin Crosby

The same thoughts, wonders and internal debate which have plagued Pittsburgh Penguins fans since the unceremonious playoff rejection by the New York Islanders have also pinged around my weary mind. Like my grandmother’s favorite cheap and fatty chicken stock which was boiled down to the greatest homemade chicken soup the world has ever known, the Penguins situation can be boiled down to the debate between future and past.

How can the Penguins build for the future and yet honor the past? Can the Penguins win another Stanley Cup before Butch and Sundance ride off into the sunset or could one of them survive if they ride their separate ways? If you’ve never seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you must.

In this instance, I’m directly referring to Evgeni Malkin. There isn’t a right or wrong answer and those who own the franchise certainly have a belief that stars of that magnitude should stay in the same universe. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford may be tasked by his paycheck signers to build around the dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Malkin one more time.

If that becomes the order, it will be a tall, tall task which has not been successfully completed in my hockey lifetime.

Past is Prologue?

In 2009, Pavel Datsyuk was 30 when the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings made a valiant run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final but lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Max Talbot (wow that was a fun series to watch). Detroit sidekick Henrik Zetterberg was even younger.

That Detroit team never had a second act and never won more than one playoff series in a given year until they missed the playoffs in the last three years. Are Penguins fans ready for 10 years of early exits or playoff misses?

Anaheim lifted the 2007 Stanley Cup with 36-year-old Hall of Fame winger Teemu Selanne, defensemen Scott Niedermayer, 34, and Chris Pronger, 32, and center Andy McDonald, 30. But that team was powered by young upstarts Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaff and some guy named Chris Kunitz.

Pronger and Niedermayer were at the top of their game and Anaheim goalie J.S. Giguere had such large pads he looked like Goldberg (Mighty Ducks movie, not the wrestler) in the net.

However, Anaheim was also not able to repeat or come close. In the following five years, they won only one playoff series and failed to make the playoffs twice. Woof.

The Penguins core players have already been through the wringer, the American Ninja obstacle course, and the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese. There isn’t a doubt in my mind after reading Chicago writer extraordinaire Mark Lazerus’ book, “If These Walls Could Talk” (still available on Amazon) that a multi-Stanley Cup run takes years off of a player’s career and legs.

Many of the Chicago Blackhawks stars were not the same players in the immediate years following their last win in 2015.

But like you, I enjoy watching greatness. I enjoy covering it. There is a human part of me too which believes it can be done because Evgeni Malkin has been one of the greats of his generation and is still capable of being a game-changer…if he would stop trying to be the 25-year-old player he was and become the 33-year-old player with superior size, strength, hands, and vision which he is.

And stop being a distraction in the classroom, too. The teacher has a few important and necessary things to impart.

The logical, rational, cold side of me which runs this little business and is expanding, fully understands Jim Rutherford’s leaning to wipe much of the Penguins clean of the negative locker room junk this season; regardless of the nameplate. From a cold GM perspective, the path to contending is likely shorter and more sustainable if the Penguins deal Evgeni Malkin.

The Pittsburgh Penguins future is not yet in their prospects. Kasper Bjorkqvist has surprised me with his improvement. Some have been touting him based on hope. Now it appears that hope may be paying off but it seems far too much to ask for him to be a 30-goal scoring difference maker. The Penguins would do well if he can pop 20 goals in one season by 2021-22.

The Penguins top defensive prospect Calen Addison must continue to physically mature. The pro game will eat him alive in the battle areas. A winger with superior speed and skill can get away with being short and under 180 pounds. A defenseman cannot.

Farmhand Adam Johnson did little to distinguish himself in his first taste of the NHL game at the end of the regular season. He’s fast but his ceiling is probably fourth line duty–and he’ll have to learn to relish a rough game to succeed in that role.

The Penguins will get cap space or younger and less insubordinate when they trade Phil Kessel (yes, I believe that to be a near certainty regardless of the return). Trading Olli Maatta will also free another $4 million.

So there is the window to build around Malkin and Crosby.

But it’s never been done before. Not by the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, or even the cash-happy Detroit Red Wings of the 1990s. No one has been able to rebuild a dynasty on the fly for a second act, let alone a third.

I don’t know what the Penguins will do. We’ve been told what they’re thinking about doing. In the biggest picture and the 30,000-foot aerial view, the Penguins have to decide their organizational philosophy. Are they the organization of stars and will try to build a DC Comics universe around Batman and Robin once more?

Or will Rutherford become Thanos in the Marvel world and wipe away half of the Pittsburgh Penguins universe to save it from itself?

My gut perhaps tainted by human emotion is betting on the former, but my head is expecting the latter. And Malkin will get his say in the matter, too.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Dean
Dean
2 years ago

Dan, I agree that now is the time to surround both players with players they “need” to bring out their best game. We are half way there with Guentzel – Crosby. I really believe we can be half way there with McCann – Malkin. Unfortunately, I do not believe that we have the RW for either line on the roster. To complete the Malkin line we need a young true top six two-way player. This would surround Malkin with speed, skill, and the 2 two-way players he desperately need. I believe Kapanen fits that bill. It will cost us our… Read more »

Edgar
Edgar
2 years ago

If Rutherford didn’t spend so much on crap on the blue line, this wouldn’t be an issue. All we ever really needed was 1 stout defenseman added to the core group. Pushing Maatta down to 3rd pairing where he would be more than fine.

Dean
Dean
2 years ago
Reply to  Edgar

Edgar, I think the blue line can be fixed in just a couple moves. Dan. likes Johnson because he clears the crease, I agree that is missing from the pens D without Johnson. However, there are cheaper younger options out there to Johnson plus they have other complimentary attributes that Johnson doesn’t have. Just like the forwards being fixed with a couple moves, so can the D. We have 5 strong D that we should keep. Dumoulin – Letang, ??? -Schultz, Petterson – Gubranson Keep Gubranson because as Dan points out he does deter our stars from getting man handled,… Read more »

Edgar
Edgar
2 years ago
Reply to  Dean

That’s fine with me, but is that bottom 4 good enough to win the cup? I don’t know. And Letang has to, just has to fix his mistakes. We’ll never win (again) until he changes his outlook on these games. He got testy about mistakes but he and Dumo just got killed in goal differential in the Islander series.

TonyMo
TonyMo
2 years ago

I’m wondering if the Pens situation is more analogous to Boston than Anaheim or Detroit? Start with the major pieces: Crosby, soon to be 32 and Malkin, soon to be 33 as compared with Marchand, who just turned 31 and Bergeron, soon to be 34. Both teams have been to three Cup finals over the last ten years with Boston having the opportunity to garner their 2nd cup. Remarkable about the Bruins is it’s been five seasons since their last appearance yet the same, call it, engine block, hasn’t changed. Granted, the Pens don’t have five years to rebuild but… Read more »

TonyMo
TonyMo
2 years ago

…it’s been five seasons since their last appearance and the, call it, engine block, hasn’t changed

Proofreading is always a good idea.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

Do a mini-rebuild around Sid, who likely has several more top-level seasons left. Trading Kessel, and, yes, Malkin and Letang is improvement by subtraction. Players in their 30s who refuse to follow what the head coach wants and who lack situational awareness (Letang in particular) are more negatives than positives at this point in their careers. I mean, the Islanders swept the uninterested Penguins, who were then swept by Carolina, who were then swept by Boston. No, you can’t draw sweeping conclusions from that, but one conclusion that can be drawn is that the “core” was pathetic in the playoffs… Read more »

Dean
Dean
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug, Not sure how that is a mini-rebuild. Trading 3 elite players is major.

I would be ok with 2 of the 3 (Kessel and Malkin) That would still be major.

Couldn’t disagree more with Letang.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Dean

I don’t consider Kessel an elite player any longer, and the trade market for him should verify that. Malkin and Letang are still elite, but for how much longer? An argument can be made that Malkin’s decline this past season is not reversible. Age is a problem with all three, with the question being whether it’s better to move now and get value for them or wait until it’s too late and have the team steeply decline as the farm system appears to be barren of potential stars. I’m also a strong supporter of Mike Sullivan and believe he’s earned… Read more »

Dean
Dean
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Well as much as I don’t like players with bad attitudes, like AB and Kessel, it doesn’t change the fact that their skill level is elite in comparison to their peers. Just like AB, Kessel’s value may be far less than fair value because of his character flaws. A couple things I do not like about Sullivan’s coaching is that he rarely allows chemistry to develop. Chemistry to him is almost a shift by shift call. I would like to see it more in weeks and once chemistry develops you don’t break the line in a cold spell unless it… Read more »

Matt Luda
Matt Luda
2 years ago

Leave emotion out of it. The core group had two seasons to get it right and failed to do so. Makes zero sense to keep problem children with steep contracts who have maxed out. Time to change the culture and move on. If GMJR does his job — and that’s the big if here — he can turn this team around quickly. It doesn’t have to be the Red Wings or Blackhawks or Kings all over again. My plan: 1. Dump Kessel, Maata and Malkin for a versatile bottom six center, draft picks and salary cap space. 2. Sign at… Read more »

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