Sure, let’s go through it step by step. I’ve been questioned on radio, our YouTube chats, and by readers in print on what seems to be a simple issue. If only the Pittsburgh Penguins organization would realize they can no longer win a Stanley Cup and that the best years of Evgeni Malkin are behind him, they could rebuild and get back to winning Stanley Cups.
Am I right?
I know many of you believe that to be true. The sooner the Penguins front office led by President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke and general manager Ron Hextall dumps Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the sooner they begin the rebuild and the sooner the sixth Stanley Cup arrives.
But….No. No, no no no.
When people say the Penguins fanbase is spoiled, they don’t just mean a lineage of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Sidney Crosby, which is a lineage that rivals anything the Boston Celtics or New York Yankees ever put together. No, the lineage is only part of the equation.
The Penguins have also twice been able to build around all-time greats, with a good bit of luck.
Those of us old enough to remember will recall the first six years of Mario Lemieux; we witnessed only one playoff appearance. There was much good fortune and good timing involved in the Penguins’ acquisitions of Hall of Fame talents and borderline HOF players like Paul Coffey, Mark Recchi, Tom Barrasso, Kevin Stevens, Larry Murphy, Joe Mullen, and so on.
Coffey, Barrasso, Mullen, and Bryan Trottier priced themselves out of their original teams or simply wanted to go. And the Penguins were in the perfect position for each player.
Then the Penguins fleeced Minnesota for Murphy.
The stars aligned in extraordinary ways for then-GM Craig Patrick.
It all happened a second time from 2003-2006. The Penguins picked at the top or second overall, and the run magically coincided with a crop of all-time greats. Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal were the successive first-round picks. Fleury and Crosby were first overall. Malkin and Staal were second overall.
The odds of another run like that are astronomic.
Plenty of other teams have had a similar run of draft slots. Edmonton, Detroit, and Buffalo spring to mind. Edmonton snagged Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl. How many great playoff runs have they had?
Poor Buffalo and Detroit. Jack Eichel has had enough in Buffalo. There are quiet worries that Dylan Larkin may get fed up if Detroit doesn’t start showing more progress, too.
Recently, New Jersey has also been dominating the top of the draft too. Let me know when Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are Stanley Cup contenders.
But the Penguins are special, right? The Penguins do things better than other organizations. They’ll be able to do it when everyone else struggles.
Burke’s old poke of the Penguins rebuild strategies, which he now jokingly owns, is apropos.
“What’s the Pittsburgh model? They got a lottery,” Burke once growled to reporters in 2012. “They won a goddamn lottery, and they got the best player in the game (Crosby). Is that available to me? Should we do that? Should we ask the league to do a lottery this year, and maybe we pick first? The Pittsburgh model, my ass.”
As Edmonton is proving, even with the best player in the game, and a damn good sidekick, winning isn’t easy.
And you want the Penguins to begin that process with a team capable of making the playoffs?
Now, if you still think the Penguins can simply rebuild, go back and re-read the last 490 words. And this is why the Pittsburgh Penguins cannot simply blow it up now and start over.
If you have the choice between a team which can win the division, and with a tinker or tweak and a bit of luck, make a playoff run — OR — go through the losing gamble of rebuilding, which would you choose?
If you choose the latter, re-read the first 490 words again. There are also significant financial implications too. Those playoff games bring profit to the organization, which loses money, or breaks even, otherwise.
How did others do it?
Now, here’s the good news: it is absolutely possible to rebuild and retool on the fly. How many superstars have the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, and New York Islanders traded?
Tampa Bay and New York built teams through steady and consistent drafting. Our new colleagues Kevin Allen and Bob Duff at Detroit Hockey Now did a brilliant piece on how Steve Yzerman built the Tampa Bay Lightning. Get this: Yzerman’s draft success was 54%.
That number doesn’t just mean first-round picks. It’s ALL picks. Add a few solid trades and ta-da, a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
Montreal GM Marc Bergevin has not drafted especially well but used a consistent team philosophy to construct a team designed for the playoffs. Jesper Kotkaniemi (2018, 3rd overall) and Cole Caufield (2019, 15th overall) are the only recent home-grown high picks on the current Montreal roster.
Only a handful of draft picks since 2013 are still on the Montreal roster (Caufield, Kotkaniemi, Alexander Romanov, Jake Evans, and Artturi Lehkonnen). Of the group, only the first two were first-round picks.
Of course, it helps to have 2005 fifth-overall pick Carey Price in goal. He’s pretty good, eh? 2007 second-round pick P.K. Subban brought top defenseman Shea Weber. Otherwise, the Canadiens are a hodgepodge of role players, small moves, and later picks.
It took a long time to build them to the 2014 Eastern Conference Final and rebuild them to the 2021 NHL Semifinal. Yet no Stanley Cups, either.
Maybe fans will convince Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to move the team to Kansas City finally so that Pittsburgh will get an expansion franchise and its own expansion draft?
And that’s why the Penguins’ best chance, and the best path is to continue forward. Taking steps back usually means exactly that, and there is little guarantee a team ever takes those steps forward.
Even with a “goddamn lottery.”
(Forgive me, Sister Katherine Mary).