It’s been nearly two decades since Lord Stanley shacked up with the same franchise two years in a row. Back-to-back NHL championships were last executed by the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. In the 11 years since the salary cap was implemented, only one team has made it to the finals after winning it all. That was also the Red Wings and they played your Pittsburgh Penguins. We all know how that turned out.
Will that history work against the Penguins as they enter the franchise’s 50th season in the NHL? It’s time to find out. Four months and a day after Sidney Crosby hoisted that 34-and-a-half-pound chalice for the second time in his career, his team begins its defense. He’s been here before.
Seven years ago, after becoming the youngest player to captain a team to a Stanley Cup, Crosby said he wasn’t worried about a championship hangover. A month into the 2009-2010 season, the Penguins had the best record in the Eastern Conference. With the league gunning for them, the team finished with 101 points, good for second place behind the New Jersey Devils in what was the Atlantic Division. The Pens advanced past the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs but were eliminated in seven games by head-standing goalie Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens.
Was this a Stanley Cup “hangover” per se? Not necessarily. The team wasn’t puking all over itself, giving fans headaches and making people swear off hockey. It had notched its third 100-point season in four years, and the arrow was pointing up. The Pens simply ran into a hot goalie and, quite possibly, just ran out of gas. Making consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup finals can take a toll on players mentally and physically. A combined 208 games were played in those seasons. Add in the 2010 Winter Olympics and you have a whole lot of ice time without much chance to rest and recover.
Thanks to the New York Rangers, a quick exit in the 2015 postseason has kept the combined game count much lower this time around, 15 games less, to be exact. But there are plenty of other factors that determine success in the shadow of a Stanley Cup.
“There’s a reason why it hasn’t been done for a long time,” Crosby says when asked about repeating as champion. “Everybody wants to beat you. Everyone is measuring themselves against you. You have to be ready every night and expect everyone’s best.
“To win you have to be lucky, too. You do a lot of things right, but you have to be lucky. So you need to play as well as you did in the year previous, and when you get some bounces you have to put yourself in the position to kind of create your own luck.”
Stability plays a role in sustained success, as well. When you can say that Ben Lovejoy was your biggest loss in the offseason (he signed with New Jersey as a free agent), your returning roster is in a pretty good place. Sure, the veteran defenseman logged 20-plus minutes in three Cup final games and stepped up when Trevor Daley went down with a broken ankle. But Daley himself is back.
A key cog in the shift to an aggressive, puck-moving defensive scheme, the 32-year old blueliner is in a contract year and says that he is all healed and ready to go. “I feel great. I don’t feel like I’ve lost a step at all,” Daley says, adding that to repeat, “we have to be better.”
With a full 82-game slate under head coach Mike Sullivan’s supercharged system, it’s hard to imagine the Pens regressing. Last season there were a bunch of moving parts due to injuries, trades and coaching changes. Once the ice chips settled, the Penguins cruised through the second half of the season, posting a 30-11-4 record in the final 45 games. In addition to Daley, defenseman Justin Schultz and speedy forward Carl Hagelin were also acquired via trade, with the latter becoming the “H” in the Pens’ top-scoring trio in the playoffs, the HBK line. The Swedish winger is excited to be back with the group.
“A lot of familiar faces,” Hagelin says. “It’s the same focus as last year, so it’s an easy transition.”
Sullivan agrees: “We have a lot of returning players that have shown a history of success together.” But as last season attests, anything can happen. Especially when it comes to injuries. The Penguins showed off their organizational depth, relying on a number of players from their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Affectionately known as the Baby Pens, the young guys grew up fast in the NHL and made names for themselves in the postseason. Forwards Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl each scored a game-winning goal, and goalie Matt Murray played his way into the NHL record books. With 15 wins, the 22-year-old net-minder tied Ron Hextall, Patrick Roy and Cam Ward for most playoff wins as a rookie. That’s not good; that’s elite.
Now that this group has graduated to the next level, the question becomes “who’s next?” Does general manager Jim Rutherford have more talent in the system? It appears so. Scott Wilson, probably the best shot of the young crop, ended his season in March when he broke his foot. He’s had a strong camp, with a goal and an assist through four preseason games, and will be out to prove his talent. Sullivan likes what he sees.
“I think he’s a strong kid who’s brave and goes to the net,” Sullivan says. “But what I really like about Scott’s game is his overall game. He’s kind of like a young Chris Kunitz.” That’s a good place to be at 24, and even better since Kunitz just turned 37 and is in the last year of his contract.
On a team that is so strong up the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, ice time for a center will be hard to come by. But if the Penguins happen to need reinforcements, they have three to choose from. Oskar Sundqvist played 18 games with the Pens last season with four points, and has the most experience at the NHL level. Two others have intrigued the coaches this preseason. Carter Rowney, an undrafted free agent, turned pro at 24 (he’s now 27) and led the Baby Pens in scoring last season, the beginning of which was under Mike Sullivan’s watch.
“I was very familiar with his game last year, and I’ve seen his game evolve from a year ago at this point until now,” says Sullivan. “He’s a real solid, two-way center-ice man. He can play at both ends of the rink. He has good size. He’s strong down low. And he can win faceoffs. So I think he’s only going to get better.” The other is Jake Guentzel. He scored 14 points in 10 Calder Cup games last year for Wilkes-Barre. Either could be ready to skate right up if needed.
There’s not much need to discuss the goalie situation, as it has been argued ad nauseam. And at least for the start of the season, the situation has worked itself out. Matt Murray will miss the first few weeks with a broken hand suffered in the World Cup of Hockey. Veteran Marc-Andre Fleury will start for the foreseeable future, with rookie Tristan Jarry as backup. The Notre Dame product pitched shutouts in each of his first two preseason starts and is turning heads.
“He has the ability to be a real good goalie. Handles the puck extremely well,” Sullivan says. “I think we’re all excited about Tristan’s potential.”
In the arduous NHL season, depth is the key to success. The Penguins have it in droves. With the best player in hockey leading the way, Crosby and his mates have a legitimate chance to celebrate the franchise’s 50th season with another championship.