Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby veered from the script on Thursday. The company line has been to ignore or claim to ignore the potential end of the greatest team core in the salary cap era and one of the greatest team nuclei in NHL history. Instead, Crosby admitted the unknown and wistfully acknowledged the end of Crosby-Malkin-Letang could be near.
Crosby will savor what could be the last ride of him and his teammates once bonded by youth, then by championship silver, and by maturity.
Franchise stalwarts Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin are pending free agents after the season.
“As much as you don’t want to think about it, it’s something that you understand could be a possibility…I think you try to enjoy it as much as you can and try to take it all in because you know that it’s not going to last forever,” Crosby said.
Crosby passingly referenced the crew has faced uncertainty before, but not quite like this. In 2019, there were the Malkin trade rumors. There were quiet Letang trade whispers in the recent past, too.
But management and the Pittsburgh Penguins ownership held the core together, even under trying circumstances.
Pittsburgh Penguins Changing
Now, everything is new. GM Ron Hextall will see the team to the next chapter. Mario Lemieux sold the team to the Fenway Group. And on Wednesday evening, President/CEO David Morehouse resigned.
“And whether it’s this year, down the road a little bit more, you only get to play for so long. So I think just trying to enjoy it and be grateful for the opportunity that we have to do it again,” concluded Crosby.
To everything there is a season.
This season, PHN has tried similar queries with Letang, Malkin, and Bryan Rust. Evgeni Malkin, who was the second overall pick in 2004 and made his NHL debut in 2006-07, deflected as he cracked up, “I’m like a rich guy.”
Letang flatly said they haven’t thought about it. “No,” he shrugged before getting into a stock answer about the opportunity of the playoffs.
Rust, who is also a pending free agent, had a similar response.
And those make Crosby’s soft admission more honest and genuine. He will stay. Crosby is a lifer, and he is still producing at elite levels. Sportsnet reporter extraordinaire Elliotte Friedman put the Penguins captain in his mix of three players to be the third Hart Trophy finalist.
In 68 games, Crosby has 84 points, including 31 goals.
Kris Letang has been among NHL defensemen scoring leaders with an impressive 67 points (9-58-67).
Malkin had serious knee surgery last June and didn’t return until February. He has not recaptured his best form but has 19 goals in just 40 games.
Crosby and Letang were part of the Penguins’ 2005 NHL Draft class. Crosby, of course, was the first overall pick, but Letang was a highly-touted third-round pick. The defenseman spent one more year in juniors before playing seven games at the end of the 2006-07 season.
That was the first time the Big Four were together, as you count Marc-Andre Fleury. Or the Five with Brooks Orpik, the Pittsburgh Penguins 2000 first-round pick.
Many of the Penguins’ marquee players and part of the team nucleus have come and gone, but three remain, 15 years later. The brightest lights followed the darkest moments of the franchise following bankruptcy, Mario Lemieux’s nailbiter fight for an arena that was just a few steps down the hallway away from the existence of the Kansas City Penguins, to the painful Generation Next and its $23 million payroll.
From the fight to exist sprang the fight for championships.
By the end of Letang’s second full season, he had only 52 points (18-34-54) in 144 games. Long-time fans may remember Letang’s disastrous struggles in the playoffs in 2007-08.
Or remember Malkin throwing haymakers on Henrik Zetterberg in a late Game 2 fight in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
You may remember the wicked goals. Letang dancing around the offensive zone or scoring the 2016 Stanley Cup-winning goal. Malkin splitting defenders or galloping past them. Malkin’s career indeed has better highlights than that fight, but it was one of the primary moments those Penguins, who were said to be too young, too undisciplined, fought for their place.
Former Penguins head coach Michel Therrien laughingly told PHN the story of sending the boys home. After practice, they would stay on the ice. Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Fleury would hang out for hours. All they knew was hockey.
From Jan. 28, 2019: PHN Extra Video: Therrien Explains Why Penguins Core is Special
“It’s winning. Winning, winning. They were teenagers almost, and I had to kick them out of the rink,” Therrien smiled back then. “They spent their days at the rink. That’s all they knew, spending time together. After 13, 14 years, the one thing you can tell, these guys still have the passion…”
Things didn’t always go well. The playoff meltdowns from 2011-2015 included blowing 3-1 series leads, selfish play, inexplicable retribution penalties, and other finger-wagging no-nos.
But they persevered. Two more Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017–still the only salary cap era team to win back-to-back Cups after full NHL seasons (no disrespect to Tampa Bay, who won the Bubble and the 2021 56-game season).
Head coach Mike Sullivan had something to do with the franchise turnaround, and legacy rebuilds, too.
“we’re in a business where change is inevitable. And it’s part of what we all sign up for. With respect to these guys and what they’ve accomplished and the legacy that they’ve built here in Pittsburgh, it’s impressive,” Sullivan said. “And they’re deserving of the recognition based on what they’ve accomplished. When I look at this core group of players, I believe they’re the best core that I’ve ever been around.”
Maybe it will be over. Maybe not. Crosby at least allowed for the possibility as new ownership and management get settled.
It’s been a ride unlike few others in NHL history and like none other in the 21st century.