Another year, another disappointing ending. Such is the life for the Pittsburgh Penguins these days.
Every single year, the season begins with promise and Stanley Cup aspirations. And why wouldn’t they? After all, this is the team that houses stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury. A team built through the draft, the Pens are loaded with star power but every year is the year they’ve found the right complimentary pieces to make another Cup run.
So as the Penguins lick their wounds and head off to hit the links after a Game Seven elimination by the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, we begin another offseason telling ourselves that the Penguins will be back and that it’s only a matter of time before Geno and The Kid are back in the Finals.
But when do we all start accepting that maybe these Penguins aren’t built to win a Cup? Maybe these Penguins teams are made to look nice and shiny in the regular season, only to be pummeled into submission in the playoffs?
For a team with so much star power at the top, how do they keep failing? Where does it go wrong and what’s changed from the 2009 team that hoisted Lord Stanley’s chalice?
Well, to be fair to the Penguins, part of it has to do with something that is out of their control. For one thing, the playoffs are a far different beast than the regular season. During the regular season, penalties seem to be called far more stringently. Teams don’t get away with the hooking, the clutching and the grabbing. In the playoffs, though? Referees are far more lenient and players can get away with a ton more. It’s part of this weird mantra of “let them play” which is fine if it’s borderline calls, but there are plenty of instances all across the playoffs where calls should be made and they are not for the sake of “letting them play”.
Crosby, more than anyone else it seems, is the victim of this style of play. He has to fight through the extra muck, all the jabs and slashes, all the grabbing in order to get his offense in. Sure, he gets his shots in just like everyone else, but the playoffs can be downright suffocating to someone like Crosby who thrives on free space and being able to draw penalties. It’s hard to thrive when you’re constantly slogging through the mud.
That isn’t the biggest problem the Penguins face in their quest for a Stanley Cup, however. The problem they haven’t dealt with is the fact that they just aren’t deep enough to make Cup runs like the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins of the world.
Think about it for a second: those teams get scoring from the very top of their roster to the very bottom. They’re deep defensively and have good-to-great goaltending. If Jonathan Toews or Patrice Bergeron isn’t scoring, the Andrew Shaws or Torey Krugs pick up the slack. Not to mention that both of those teams play fantastic team defense in front of goalies who come up big when they are asked to.
The Penguins are simply too top-heavy to succeed in the playoffs. Crosby, Malkin and Neal look great on paper, but who is behind them to do the dirty work? Where are the bottom-six players that don’t get the recognition but play the quality defense, win the faceoffs and forecheck like crazy?
With Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Chris Kunitz, Lee Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen as your top six, you’re in good shape. But after that, it gets sketchy at best. Brandon Sutter proved himself to be a solid third center as the year went on and Pascal Dupuis has been a mainstay for the Pens as a third-line winger, but what else is there? Beau Bennett has flashed potential, but he’s also had chronic wrist issues in his brief career. Tanner Glass and Chris Conner? Good AHL depth players, but not players who will help you win a Stanley Cup.
This summer is going to be a test for the Pens as they have a few important pieces to keep in house. Sutter is due for a raise. Ditto for Matt Niskanen. Who gets re-signed out of the Jokinen/Stempniak/Marcel Goc group? How much will be left over to make actual improvements to the roster? How do they improve depth on the bottom six and on defense?
Defense might be an easier problem to solve with Simon Despres and Derrick Pouliot ready to step in should the team not re-sign Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. But there isn’t much in the way of forward prospects coming down the pike. Unless they trade off a big piece like Malkin or Kris Letang, they’ll have to work a little cap magic to find that coveted depth that makes teams like Chicago and Boston legit contenders who find themselves in the finals year after year.
Until then, it will be huge expectations and huge disappointment in the Steel City.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @TwoPadStackRW