The Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup champions. After a challenging season and a long and winding road through the playoffs, the team and its fans deserve nothing more than the opportunity to take a moment to savour the magnitude of the accomplishment.
OK, that’ll do. We said a moment. Don’t get greedy here, Pittsburgh, the rest of us have an offseason to get to.
Nobody gets to rest on their laurels for long in the hockey world, so before all those Penguins-inspired hangovers have even faded, it’s time to start figuring out whether they can do it again. There hasn’t been a repeat Cup champion since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings, so the odds seem slim. But the Penguins pulled it off in 1991 and 1992, and appeared in back-to-back finals less than a decade ago. Can they pull it off next year?
Spoiler alert: Maybe.
Here are five reasons why the Penguins really could repeat, and five more why they probably won’t.
Why they could: Their core should remain intact
Change is inevitable in the NHL, and every team adds and subtracts over the course of an offseason. The Penguins will be no exception, and next year’s opening night roster won’t look the same as the one that skated the Cup around the ice on Sunday.
But it won’t look all that different because, in terms of the core, the Penguins have all the key pieces locked in. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel are all on long-term deals. So is Marc-Andre Fleury, and Matt Murray is under team control for years to come. And while some of those players are getting up there, none are so old that you’d expect a major decline any time soon.
In fact, the Penguins already have a barely-full NHL roster signed to contracts for next year before the offseason even gets underway. True, the Penguins could always decide to shake things up with a trade or some other unexpected move. But if they don’t want to, they won’t need to.
We’re used to seeing recent champs like the Chicago Blackhawks forced into rebuilding on the fly before they’ve even finished the parade cleanup, but that won’t be the case in Pittsburgh. And that’s going to mean that for all intents and purposes, they’ll be able to defend their title with essentially the same team that just won it.
Why they won’t: Depth could be an issue
One of the keys to the Penguins’ championship was their impressive depth, a factor that allowed them to roll four lines and overcome some key injuries. For years, the knock on the Penguins was that they were top-heavy — a team built around elite talent but lacking the supporting pieces to push it over the top. Jim Rutherford spent much of the last year addressing that issue with smart under-the-radar acquisitions, and it paid off.
While the big-name core is locked in, some of those depth pieces are unlikely to return. Matt Cullen and Ben Lovejoy are unrestricted free agents, and Justin Schultz is set to hit RFA status. None are what you’d call crucial pieces, but each played a role in the Penguins’ run.
There’s also not much in the way of reinforcements on the way from inside the organization; the Penguins prospect pipeline isn’t strong, and cap pressure and the lack of a first round pick this year will make finding help on the trade market a challenge. Rutherford will have some work cut out for him.
Why they could: The kids will get better
Among the unexpected stories of the Penguins’ playoff run were the contributions by relatively unheralded youngsters. Murray was the big one, of course, but Pittsburgh also got big moments from guys like Conor Sheary, Brian Dumoulin and Bryan Rust. They’ll all be back, and presumably will get better with experience and increased responsibility. There’s also Olli Maatta, who’s only 21, and Derrick Pouliot should get a chance to deliver on some of the promise that made him a top-10 pick.
Young players are tough to predict, and even the best will struggle with inconsistency and unforced mistakes. But if at least a few of the Penguins’ kids can continue taking steps forward, that should allow the team to paper over some of those depth concerns by improving from within. And if one or more were to really break out, even better.
Why they won’t: The cap situation is going to be tight
The good news is that the key pieces are all locked up. The bad news is that doesn’t leave much room to add anything. We don’t know what next year’s cap will be yet, but the Penguins project to be right up against it, and maybe even over.
That shouldn’t force any major sell-offs, and again, there are no big names needing new deals. But the margin for error for Jim Rutherford and company will be slim, especially if those young players take a step back. In a league where every team, even the Cup champion, is going to have its flaws, the Penguins will have a tough time addressing any that they find.
Why they could: The Mike Sullivan factor
When the Penguins fired Mike Johnston on December 12 and handed the job to Sullivan, the team’s record was 15-10-3, in fifth place in the Metro and sitting outside of a playoff spot. They were struggling, and despite a talent-packed lineup, they couldn’t put the puck in the net, ranking just 28th in league scoring. From that point on, Pittsburgh went 33-16-5, finished the season third in goals scored, and transformed into one of the league’s best possession teams. Exactly six months after making the move, Sullivan and the Penguins were accepting the Stanley Cup.
That’s not bad for a new coach who didn’t even have a training camp to work with. Now Sullivan will have a full offseason to continue to mold the team, and a full preseason to drill home his system. Most coaches tend to have a short shelf life, with players starting to tune out even the very best after a few years of hearing the same message. But Sullivan should still be well within his honeymoon period. He was able to transform an underachieving Penguins’ team into arguably the best team in the league over the second half; there’s little reason to think he can’t keep the momentum going into next year.
Why they won’t: Fatigue is going to come into play
No team has appeared in back-to-back Stanley Cup finals since the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings faced each other in 2008 and 2009. Even mini-dynasties like the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have taken at least one season off in between final appearances, and in recent years, finalists have been more likely to miss the playoffs altogether.
Why? Parity, injuries and bad luck all come into play. But another theory is that fatigue hits especially hard in today’s NHL, where everyone goes full speed on virtually every shift. The Penguins played 106 meaningful games this year, and will have a shorter offseason to rest up than almost all of their competition. And that break will be even shorter than usual this year, as many of their best players will be part of the World Cup in September.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Penguins needing to step on the gas at some point down next year’s stretch only to find that the tank is empty.
Why they could: The road out of the East doesn’t look all that scary
Ask yourself this: Who’s going to beat the Penguins in the Eastern Conference next year?
The Tampa Bay Lightning? They’re a good bet, but they could lose Steven Stamkos to free agency. The New York Rangers? That window is slamming shut. The Florida Panthers? They were a great story but there were plenty of signs that they could be due for a step back. The Red Wings and Boston Bruins look to be headed in the wrong direction, the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers aren’t quite there yet, the Montreal Canadiens are anyone’s guess, and most of the conference’s rebuilding teams are still a year or two away from scaring anyone.
That leaves the Washington Capitals, and maybe they deserve conference favourite status on the strength of their dominant regular season. But the Penguins were every bit as good once Sullivan arrived, and they knocked Washington out of the playoffs this spring. Would they really be underdogs in a rematch?
A lot can change once the offseason gets going but right now the Western Conference field looks as crowded as ever. The East? Not so much.
Why they won’t: The goaltending situation could get awkward
If you’re a glass-half-full sort of Pittsburgh fan, you look at the tandem of Murray and Fleury was one of the league’s best situations. The Penguins could head into next year as one of the few teams in league history to be able to boast two goaltenders who both have Cup rings as a starter. It’s a nice mix of the talented youngster and experienced veteran mentor, one that would give Sullivan plenty of room to work with and allow him to spread the playing time around to avoid burning anyone out. And given Murray’s rookie contract, the pairing wouldn’t even be all that expensive. And besides, it worked in the playoffs, where Fleury played the good soldier and accepted his backup role without making any waves.
But it’s one thing to ask Fleury to grin and bear it for four rounds. It’s another altogether to do it for the better part of a year. The veteran is under contract for three more years, and you can bet he didn’t sign that deal looking to be a backup. With Fleury lurking, how much room does Murray get to work through the usual sophomore slumps? Does a 2017 expansion draft change the landscape here? And what would Fleury’s teammates, who clearly still love the guy, think about how it was all playing out?
Nobody’s expecting this to devolve into a full-on drama, but Stanley Cup champs are always watched more closely than other teams, and you can bet that all of the hockey world’s mind readers and body language experts will be out in full force.
Why they could: Trading Fleury could solve a few of these problems
That last section assumes that Fleury is back for next season. But there’s a decent chance that the Penguins decide to pull the trigger on a trade now – after all, Rutherford sure hasn’t been shy about wheeling and dealing since he took over.
Fleury probably wouldn’t bring much of a return, given his age, contract and reduced role. But it would clarify the goaltending position immediately, clear up a big chunk of cap space and give the Penguins the flexibility to add a cheap veteran backup and some depth elsewhere in the lineup. As long as Murray turns out to be the real deal, a Fleury trade could potentially solve a few of the Penguins’ problems in one shot.
Why they won’t: Because nobody ever does
It’s no coincidence that we haven’t seen a repeat Cup winner in the salary cap era; there are just so many factors working against a defending champion. We’ve touched on fatigue and cap pressure, and there’s the increased attention from opponents – nobody ever takes the reigning champs lightly.
But there’s a bigger factor in play, and it’s one the league loves to endlessly pat itself on the back for: Parity. We can argue over whether or not it’s a good thing, but there’s no question we’re witnessing the era of competitive balance. The gap between the league’s elite teams and the mere contenders has never been smaller, and the margin of error for a team looking to stay on top has never been slimmer. When it comes to sustained excellence in the modern era, teams like the Blackhawks and Kings seem like just about the best case scenario, and it’s telling that neither has been able to pull off back-to-back wins.
So bottom line, could the Penguins repeat? They’d appear to have as good a shot as anyone, thanks to a returning core of elite players and just enough depth, youth and flexibility to keep the wheels churning. But they probably won’t, because even if they do absolutely everything right, the NHL is a league designed to relentlessly pull top teams back to the pack.
So sure, it’s unlikely. But unlikely is not impossible. And hey, when you can go from firing your coach to winning the Cup with a rookie goalie while relying on Phil Kessel as your go-to guy for clutch moments, you’ll probably settle for “unlikely” any day.