The date was June 12, 2009. As Sidney Crosby hoisted the Stanley Cup to become the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup winner, the question on our minds was not if the Pittsburgh Penguins would win another title, but how many? They had two of the top-five players in the world in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. A “clutch” goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury. A defense led by Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik. A young coach in Dan Bylsma who was able to drag the Pittsburgh Penguins out of a mid-season funk to capture the Cup. The world was their oyster.
Only five years later, the question has shifted from “how many titles will they win” to “has their title window closed?” Five years. That’s a lifetime in hockey.
Hard to fathom that their window may be shut. But since they won that title back in 2009, they’ve lost in the conference quarterfinals twice, the conference semifinals twice, and the conference finals once. Their lone trip back to the conference finals ended with a drubbing and eventual sweep by the Boston Bruins where Boston was just too big, too tough, too deep, and just too good, period, for the Penguins. It looked like they were heading back to the conference finals this season before choking away a 3-1 series lead to a Cinderealla-Ranger team.
For a team that dressed Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Letang and Paul Martin among others during this five-year period, the results simply have not been good enough and the chance to win another title with the current core dwindles more and more each season. In fact, with players such as Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, and Marc-Andre Fleury set to become unrestricted free agents next summer, there is a very good chance the 2014/15 season will be the Penguins’ last legitimate shot to win a title for some time.
Oh, they will still be a good team, no doubt. Any team that can throw Crosby and Malkin on the ice will be a threat and rack up a ton of regular season points. But those two aren’t getting any younger. Yes, Crosby is only 27 now which should put him in the middle of his physical prime. But looking at the careers of all-time greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemiuex, both had their best years prior to turning 27. Sure, they still put up some monster seasons and were still the best in the game, but statistically, they had already peaked. Has Crosby with his injury history already peaked? Time will tell for certain, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Of course that would matter less if the Penguins were doing a better job developing their prospects to pick up some of the slack. But, since 2006, the team has only drafted one forward who has appeared in more than 40 games for the club (Beau Bennett, drafted 2010). The team has instead relied upon current veterans such as Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis to pick up the scoring pace or traded away multiple draft picks to acquire veterans such as Jarome Iginla, Bill Guerin, and Brendan Morrow to chip in. While it’s difficult to fault a team for trying to win now, these moves have led to a dearth of forward talent within the organization. New general manager Jim Rutherford seemed to notice that this summer when he traded away top-winger James Neal for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to try and bolster the team’s depth.
To its credit, the Penguins seem to have done better drafting defensemen, but again, time will tell how effective they will be. Olli Maatta and Simon Despres show promise, but are still young and questions remain about how they will handle the added burden with the loss of veterans Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik this summer. If they can’t prove they can handle it, the team may be forced to spend big dollars to re-sign Paul Martin or Christian Ehrhoff next year, putting a further salary-cap strain on a team that already is carrying several big-ticket items and needs to be able to use the cheap labor in as many places as possible. Even if Maatta and Despres end up as legitimate top-four options, there will be growing pains along the way before they hit their peak, which by then may be around the same time that Crosby and Malkin start to decline.
The other issue the Penguins face is that the Eastern Conference continues to get stronger and what appeared recently to be a two-horse race with Boston is now starting to get some more competition. The Tampa Bay Lightning have added quality pieces to an already solid group and are a chic pick to come out of the East. The Rangers will always be dangerous in a playoff series as long as Henrik Lundqvist has a pulse. The Capitals still employ Alexander Ovechkin and spent this past summer raiding the Penguins’ blue line. Plus up-and-coming teams like the Blue Jackets, Canadiens, and Islanders ensure that Pittsburgh will be challenged every step of the way once April rolls around.
After back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals’ appearances, it was easy to take for granted and proclaim the Eastern Conference was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ world and everyone else was just living in it. But whether it was injuries, bad luck, or bad goaltending, the team squandered a chance to achieve something truly special and dominate the sport. And with that the window continues to close and it’s going to take a ton of good fortune to pry it back open.