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R.I.P. Penguins Championship Window, What Comes Next



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang

TORONTO — Technically, the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t make it Round One of the NHL Playoffs. Unlike many of you, I’ve been through this before. I’ve covered teams that had a championship window, then watched that window figuratively slammed shut on their fingers. I’ve watched teams grind away, in vain, trying to recapture that magic elixir, which made them special.

Welcome to what is the most likely next chapter of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Edit: The NHL and NHLPA clarified that teams that played in the qualifying round are considered to have made the playoffs, so the Penguins 14-year streak is intact, barely.

It’s not the coach, or the GM, really. It’s not even the fault of the players. Blame Father Time. The memories of yesterday are too easy to confuse with the present.

Penguins players Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang made the case that the tournament was disconnected from the regular season because there was a several-month gap. The All-Star Game was, indeed, nearly seven months ago. However, the August version of the Penguins inconsistent style and level of play too closely mirrored the team, which reached the pandemic pause on March 11 with eight losses in its final 11 games.

The Penguins team which lost to Montreal looked identical to the team in later February, which couldn’t hold form or structure, and head coach Mike Sullivan expressed his desire for his team to commit to a simple game.

Please don’t shoot the messenger. Last season, the team couldn’t beat the New York Islanders even once in a seven games series. Then they followed that disaster this season by losing three of four games in a short five-game series to the Montreal Canadiens, who were the lowest-point producing team in a 24-team playoff tournament. You can check the pulse and call it.

Call it.

It’s over. Players and coaches are always the last to see this reality.

“You look at (Game 3), we got a 3-1 lead. We didn’t get the next (goal), and we let them back in it,” Crosby said. “We gave them hope. (If) we shut them down for the rest of the (second) period, we’re looking at a totally different situation. It doesn’t take much.”

I appreciate optimism. I’m jealous. If the Penguins just do this or that, ditch a few of these players and bring in a few of those players, everything will work out.

Unfortunately, reality sucks. The ship has raised anchor and is hoisting the sails.

No, I don’t like it any more than you do. Covering the decline is not much fun. You have to ask negative questions and poke players who have otherwise been extraordinary players and people. We will ask questions like, “You’re 1-7 in your last eight playoff games, can you pinpoint what changed?”

That was my question for head coach Mike Sullivan, Friday night.

“No. I think its an indication of how hard it is to win. You’re talking about three completely different seasons. Three completely different teams. I’m not sure that adds up.”

Yes, those were very different years and completely different teams, indeed.

The Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and LA Kings are the teams in addition to the Pittsburgh Penguins to make multiple Stanley Cup Finals appearances in the salary cap era.

Five years later, the Chicago Blackhawks are having a bit of a resurgence with a crop of young players who surround their aging core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. They would have missed the playoffs again this season but upset the Edmonton Oilers on Friday.

Toews was only 27-years-old when Chicago last lifted the trophy. He’s 32 now, and ready for Chicago’s revival.

Crosby turned 33 on Friday and received not a birthday cake with presents, but a Soupy Sales cake to the face by fist-bumping Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in congratulation for the not-playoff worthy Montreal Canadiens advancing to Round One.

Evgeni Malkin is 34-years-old. Kris Letang is 33. Patric Hornqvist is 33-years-old and will be 34 before next season is more than one month old.

Now, I’m over 40, and that seems young, but look at the piling injuries they’ve suffered. Then look at the team’s complete failure to be competitive in the post-season.

Once is a fluke. Twice is a trend.

“We still believe in the core group of this team. We have a lot in the tank,” Letang said Friday night. “We are going to keep playing hard and give everything for the Penguins … this year, we didn’t play well enough to win, but we’re comfortable with the group of guys that we have.”

The Boston Bruins, like the Penguins, had success with a group of 20-somethings, down years, then roared back for a second championship window. Boston is back with the same core which won the Cup in 2011, lost a Stanley Cup Final in 2013, then lost a Game 7 in 2019.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are fortunate. Their second gasp was 34.5 pounds of silver, twice, in 2016 and 2017. Like Boston, the Penguins’ second act came seven years after their first.

That was a sweet ride.

The Detroit Red Wings, who beat the Penguins in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final and whom the Penguins vanquished in 2009, made the playoffs for seven years after their last Cup Final. The core with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg (and Niklas Lidstrom for a few seasons), didn’t advance past the second round for four years, then didn’t advance past the Round One for three years.

2008 and 2009 was Detroit’s second window, too. It came six years after their last Stanley Cup win.

Detroit has been undergoing a rebuild for more than several years. The GM, until just a couple of years ago, was Hall of Famer Ken Holland, lest you think Detroit was mismanaged.

The Penguins have a couple of prospects who could raise hopes. Sam Poulin could be a top-six winger within the next two seasons. P.O. Joseph could be a top-six defenseman within a couple of years, too.

Crosby will be 35, and Malkin 36 when those players likely hit the NHL ready to assert themselves. And, the Penguins are more than a prospect or two away from getting back to the top of the mountain.

The Penguins will remain a team that should make the playoffs for several more years. And, sure, if Tristan Jarry becomes the next Carey Price, who can steal games and a series, the Penguins window will be ajar, just as was the Detroit window.

However, the Pittsburgh Penguins were humbled by the New York Islanders in 2019, then summarily dismissed by the Montreal Canadiens in 2020. With respect to Sullivan, it does add up. A prospect won’t change that unless his name is Alexis Lafreniere.

And if the Penguins win the Phase 2 NHL Draft Lottery on Monday, we reserve the right to rethink this column.