There is a black cloud hanging above the Pittsburgh Penguins. The offseason re-signings of stalwart superstar players were not met with the overwhelming relief and joy that other fanbases may have experienced. In some measure, the totality of the signings was met with dread and disappointment by the Penguins fanbase. The rebuild did not begin. The tear-it-down-to-the-studs destruction of the Penguins dynasty became a fortification with the new contracts to Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, and even Rickard Rakell.
As candles on the aging cake, the Penguins’ big trade acquisition was 34-year-old defenseman, Jeff Petry.
Rather than see the sunshine, many have decided it is over. Done. Too old. Bring out the Black dresses, tears, flowers, and fond stories of what was. And send over buckets of chicken if you can’t be there for the wake.
Kind of a pessimistic view, given that the group also includes Sidney Crosby, eh?
The improved blue line itself should provide the Penguins with a renewed sense of possibility. Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke indeed thinks so.
“I think we’re a better team,” Burke said. “Now, we’re just waiting for camp to start,” Burke told colleague Dave Molinari in comments published on Monday.
It might be a mistake to assume that a rebuild means Stanley Cups in the near future. Perhaps I’m getting off-topic. The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired the best players available to them this offseason, essentially did it below market value, and are one of a handful of teams with a legitimate shot to win the Eastern Conference.
Yet there remains a persistent dread for the future, seemingly overtaking any optimism for the immediate.
But is a rebuild truly necessary?
Pittsburgh Penguins Rebuild?
Conventional wisdom says yes, absolutely. Wisdom also posits it is not possible for a team to remain a contender through transition, high draft picks are necessary, and the only way to acquire them is to trade star players or lose. And usually lose some more.
Want to know a secret?
There exists one window. One chance the Penguins and GM Ron Hextall can avoid the R-word and glide from the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era into the next without the torture of losing games by the dozen, playing before empty arenas and sagging TV ratings.
The Penguins might get extremely lucky for a third time.
They out-tanked the New Jersey Devils in 1983 to get Mario Lemieux.
After that magic was running out for a second time, the next phenom, Sidney Crosby, arrived after the Penguins won a full league lottery.
And there could be a third opportunity. No, it won’t be tanking for Conor Bedard or even the player who follows him in the 2024 NHL Draft. No, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have a great opportunity because of COVID.
The great scourge upon the earth, which shut down the world, including the NHL, will give the Penguins one chance to retool on the fly.
Penguins Salary Cap
According to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the salary cap will spike after 2023-24. In two years, the Penguins will be flush with cash. If Hextall plays his cards correctly, he could be able to spend more than his competition and snag the biggest names on the market.
To do that, Hextall will need a moratorium on long-term, expensive contracts. He needs the Ray Shero special and to patchwork short-term deals next summer to have maximum flexibility should a big-time center hit the market. Perhaps a rock-ribbed top defenseman. Or multiple variations of those positions which can sustain the team.
In the meantime, hitting it big with a few prospects wouldn’t hurt, either. 2021 first-rounder Owen Pickering was a good start. Perhaps a few prospects, including Valtteri Puustinen, Lukas Svejkovsky, Joel Blomqvist, or Sam Poulin, will pop, giving the Penguins additional low-cost options, so they can save their pennies and splash the cash on UFAs.
That’s why Hextall wisely pulled back from trading Jason Zucker because it would have included the Penguins first-round pick, too.
A few low-cost prospects turned players who produce would shave years off “rebuild” if not help avoid it entirely.
It’s the holy grail of GMs: transition from success to success without the sewer of losing in between. The Chicago Blackhawks, LA Kings and Detroit Red Wings before them all tried and failed. The Penguins have already been handed a couple of holy grails with Lemieux and Crosby. Maybe, just maybe, Hextall can reach for a third.