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Kingerski: Without Bold Strokes, This is Penguins Last Chance



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) and Evgeni Malkin (71) prepare for a face-off during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Without bold strokes and sweeping changes, this season is the final chapter of the Pittsburgh Penguins dynasty.

It wasn’t supposed to end this soon. There was supposed to be more time, but isn’t that the way most things end?

Penguins stalwarts Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were all but gone. Young Alex Letang, Kris’s 9-year-old son, admitted at the press conference announcing Letang’s new contract in July that the family was already shopping for new cities. Just days before free agency began, sources told PHN that talks between the Penguins and Malkin had concluded, and the open market awaited.

Both returned at lower than market values in exchange for extra years on their contract.

And curiously, Penguins GM Ron Hextall agreed to signing bonuses and lower salaries in the later years of the contracts, making the deals the dreaded 35+ contracts. For the next four years, Malkin will count on the Penguins’ cap for $6.1 million. For the next six years, Letang will count for the same $6.1 million.

It doesn’t matter if Malkin and Letang are still active players or if they retire. They will count against the cap.

Looking forward, the Penguins will be cap-strappedd, even in any subsequent rebuilds, which only places added importance on the next couple or few seasons.

But this current team has not shown the legs to be a legit contender.

Teams Catching Up

Looking to now, a mere glance at the standings and figuratively looking at which way the winds are blowing should tell you and the Pittsburgh Penguins that time is almost up.

The Buffalo Sabres are at the gates. The team, built through years of suffering and high picks (and wasted high picks), finally found their crown jewel when 25-year-old Tage Thompson emerged as a legit, high-scoring top center. The Ottawa Senators no longer stink after years of amassing picks and prospects and scraps from others’ tables.

The Florida Panthers are in their prime and will gain cap space this summer when Patric Hornqvist’s $5.25 million AAV contract deal expires.

The Detroit Red Wings have future stars Lucas Raymond, Mortiz Seider, and others on the way. They, too, are on the cusp of the wild card fight.

And lest we forget the Montreal Canadiens, who are a scrappy bunch with an ocean of prospects and tradeable pieces. They figure to be one or two years away from playoff contention.

In short, the pack of teams behind the Penguins has caught the draft. They’re gaining daily while the Penguins slow.

The Penguins are battling themselves as much as anything else. They struggle to carry momentum from game to game, even shift to shift, as inconsistency has become the theme word for the season.

The Penguins get-up-and-go has got up and went.

Path of Former Cup Champions

And so we sit, at the precipice of then, now, and a future that looks much different than the past. Kept together in their current form, the Pittsburgh Penguins will indeed suffer the fate of Stanley Cup dynasties before them. In the past decade-plus, Detroit, Chicago, and LA have won Stanley Cups, then hit hard times that would make Dusty Rhodes blush.

The LA Kings had the easiest “retooling” of the group. They missed the playoffs in five of seven years as they hung onto core members Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, and goalie Jonathan Quick. LA is back in playoff contention even as they build statues to those Cup winners like Dustin Brown. Their salary cap has been cleansed of the past.

Chicago is about to embark on the long, dark journey without their star players after already missing the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. Detroit has missed the playoffs in the last six seasons and is finally on the upswing of an aggressive rebuild.

Immediate & Long Term Pittsburgh Penguins Future

The Penguins are statistically a good bet to make the playoffs this season.

But next season? As the Red Wings mature with even more talent on the way, the Sabres get an offseason to address needs, and the Senators also take the next steps, the Penguins will not be a good bet to fend off those teams.

The New York Islanders won’t be too bad, either.

This summer, the Penguins are set to lose over $17 million in free agents Tristan Jarry, Brian Dumoulin, Jason Zucker, Teddy Blueger, Josh Archibald, and Danton Heinen.

That’s a lot of money but a lot of roles to fill, especially in goal, where it will cost more than the Penguins are currently spending.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will have Sidney Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, but if this team remains in its current form around the core or comes back in a similar state, it would be silly to expect different results.

As for the current team, this is their last gasp. It is your choice whether or not to enjoy the ride, regardless of its potential.

It’s the organization’s choice what to do next, either in the next two weeks or this summer.

Bold moves or the slide to mediocrity await.