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.