Crosby and Malkin running out of time - end of an era looms

When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup twice in a row a couple of years back, it seemed like the dynasty could not be broken. Led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel, with compliments from between the pipes by Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, Penguins looked unstoppable and their core still competitive for years to come. But as it often goes, it was too good to be true.

Head coach Mike Sullivan had brought in a system suiting the material available perfectly and those Stanely Cup winning teams were introducing a faster, puck-moving offense than anyone had seen in the NHL-level. The skilled players bought into the system and the role players had their framework to compliment the three-line offensive juggernaut, with Crosby, Malkin and Kessel each headlining their own unit. No team was able to stop the steamroller in two seasons.

But then it did stop. The rigors of two long seasons started to show and Penguins got sloppy, slower and – some would argue – even lazy. Regular season became a burden, even though the Penguins took their usual second spot in their division after arch-rivals Washington Capitals. Changes in the team did not seem to fit Sullivan’s system (Ryan Reaves, anyone?) and there were murmurs of other kinds of discontent, when it was unhappy Kessel, Malkin or falling out between the HC Sullivan and core defenseman Ian Cole. The season ended with a disastrous loss to eventual champions Capitals in the Conference Semi-Finals.

The last season was not any easier. Although the NHL odds were in their favor, lackluster performance in the regular season added up to lowest win total in four seasons, but still took Penguins 3rd in the division. The changes made to the team were once again off and while the team had gotten bigger and most likely tougher, they had lost the advantage Sullivan had created in those SC-winning seasons: speed and puck possession. Penguins had to go into the defensive mode more often than before and it showed. New York Islanders steamrolled over the Penguins and ousted them in the first round of the playoffs.

Current season saw even more changes in the Penguins roster as GM Jim Rutheford expressed his displeasure of the last season’s endeavors. Gone are Carl Hagelin, Kessel and Olli Määttä, with rotation of Alex Galchenyuk, Tanner Pearson, Derick Brassard and Dominik Kahun. All of the players have come and gone, with sub-par performances. Jake Guentzel, Patric Hörnqvist and Bryan Rust still remain and newcomer Jason Zucker slots in the top six. Defense is questionable at best, led by injury prone and hazardous Kris Letang and solid but predictable Brian Dumoulin. Justin Schultz provides second punch, but then it is slim pickins: Jack Johnson, Marcus Petterson, Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel are hardly impact players for a contender. Youngster John Marino, although not a top NHL pick,  came out of nowhere and is still question mark albeit showing promise.

It can be argued that Penguins have lost many of Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s prime years due to stubbornly sticking to concepts that have worked. Dan Bylsma did it, Mike Sullivan seems to go the same way. The team is not anymore that fast, run & gun group it was a couple of seasons back – and neither Crosby nor Malkin are getting any younger and are inevitably declining.

The Penguins are in win-now-mode, but the assets to create a contender around Crosby and Malkin are running low. With a couple of questionable contracts and moves, GM Rutheford has put himself back against the wall. The future does not look bright for the Penguins, but neither does the present. At the time of stoppage Penguins were 5th in the East, but their record against playoff-bound teams is a losing one. The suspension of the games might’ve been a blessing in disguise for the Penguins.

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