A Dynasty That Never Was
The Bruins, Blackhawks, Flyers, Canucks, Sharks, Red Wings, Canadiens, Capitals, Kings and Predators all have more; several of those teams are still alive in the 2012 postseason and the Coyotes (11) are closing fast with another playoff series still on their schedule.
For the most part, this is the same Penguins team (at least as much the same as any team can be in today’s NHL) that won 30 postseason games, including a Stanley Cup, in 2008 and 2009.
The Penguins boasted the best core of centers in the game in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, a rapidly blossoming young goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, and a defenseman on the verge of breaking out in Kris Letang – all under the age of 25.
The trophy case in Pittsburgh was heavy with the weight of all the hardware the Penguins had brought home – Art Ross Trophy, Hart Trophy, Calder Trophy, Jack Adams Award, Ted Lindsay Award, Maurice Richard Trophy, Prince of Wales Trophy, Stanley Cup.
Their tangible assets were the envy of the league, and the intangibles gained by consecutive arduous treks to the Stanley Cup Finals could not be measured.
They were playing for—and winning—Stanley Cups, the core of the team was ridiculously young and if the sky was the limit, then there was no limit. This Penguins team was already there – they literally existed in that rarified air reserved for true dynasties.
And last month they landed with a sickening thud. The Penguins crashed to earth with very little artistry and even less grace, exiting the 2012 playoffs with a pathetic six-game effort against the hated Philadelphia Flyers.
A harsh assessment, perhaps, but not too different from the sentiment expressed by the team’s general manager, Ray Shero, a few days after the season was put to bed with an uninspired 5-1 loss in Game 6.
“One hundred and eighty-eight days of a regular season went down and unraveled for us in 10 days,” Shero said.
“Our group in the playoffs this year—to a man—we did not do the job. We under-performed and we have to find out the reason why and that starts with me,” Shero continued. “Why it unraveled in 10 days, that’s my job to try to figure out.”
So now they are left to pick up the pieces. Several defensemen with large price tags did not perform well in the postseason – or the regular season, for that matter, a fact that was not lost on Shero. Crosby and Staal both have contracts that are up at the end of next season. Goaltending depth in the organization is a problem.
Those issues, coupled with the disappointing early exit from the playoffs, could make the summer of 2012 an explosive one for the organization.
"I don't wonder about it,” insisted Staal when asked if he was concerned about a possible roster shake-up. “I know I love the guys in this room and I believe in every one of the guys in the room… It's never easy to take, no matter what year. It's not a good feeling. The guys are definitely going to remember this feeling and hopefully we can take something positive out of it and do what we can next year."
Staal’s last sentence, or something similar, has been uttered by Penguins’ players at the end of the last three seasons now. Their remarkably talented team comes up short, the players vow to learn from it and the management tweaks the complimentary parts – yet the team has only made it out of the first round one time since winning the Cup in ’09.
“Dynasties are hard to come by nowadays,” said hockey writer Derek Van Diest of the Edmonton Sun. “Part of the reason is the salary cap and everyone is on an even playing field now.”
The new financial era of the NHL requires tradeoffs, and that certainly has impacted the Penguins. The development of Letang meant the departure of Sergei Gonchar; the desire to re-sign Tyler Kennedy meant no reunion with Jaromir Jagr; the contract extension to James Neal will mean someone on the current roster likely won’t return in 2012-13.
Yet those same restrictions apply to every team in the league, and despite the player turnover necessitated by the salary cap, the core talent on the Penguins’ roster remains one of the most impressive in the league.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins have the core players in place with Sidney and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang,” said Van Diest. “If you’re a team that can keep that core in place and surround them with good secondary players and get a supporting cast and be in contention every year—like the Penguins are—then you’re going to be considered an elite team. And the Penguins were heading in that direction.”
After a 2010-11 season plagued by injuries, including serious ones to Crosby, Malkin and Staal, the Penguins slowly returned to health late in the 2011-12 season and seemed primed to make another Cup run this spring.
“I think we all believed that,” said Crosby, as he searched for answers following the playoff loss to Philly. “I think there are a lot of teams in the playoffs that believe that, though, so there are no guarantees. I think everyone believed that we had a team capable of doing that, but there's a lot of hockey to be played to do that.”
Crosby touched on another reason that Van Diest thinks NHL dynasties are a thing of the past.
“The league is better,” said Van Diest. “When Mario and Jagr played they were so dominant, but there were maybe three or four good teams in the league. Now, it’s so tough to get in the playoffs and it’s almost a crap shoot between the 16 teams that get in. You have eight-seeds beating one-seeds and pushing them all the time. The competition is better now than it was back then.”
Better competition, the salary cap, injuries, lack of execution – all legitimate reasons the Penguins have not returned to hockey’s biggest stage despite having a roster full of elite players in the prime of their careers. Yet none of those reasons, however legitimate, can get those prime years back.
“There are obviously a lot of regrets in the room, but that's stuff that you can't take back,” said Brooks Orpik wistfully, perhaps sensing yet another opportunity lost.
Orpik, 31, could very well be part of any potential moves the Penguins make this offseason, given his age, his salary ($3.75 million) and the Penguins glut of young—and less expensive—defensemen prospects.
Whatever moves are to come, it’s likely the window has closed to win a Stanley Cup, at least in Pittsburgh, for some members of the 2011-12 Penguins. But is the window closing on a franchise that was on top of the hockey world just a few short seasons ago?
“I don’t see the window closing on Pittsburgh at all,” said Van Diest. “If things don’t go their way in a given year, you do kind of take a step back. But you just have to re-tool and they’ll be fine in years coming.
“As long as you have that core group of players, the team is going to be fine.”