When the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup and skated around SAP Center this past June, you could feel many parties breathing a sigh of relief. For Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it meant that their tandem had been justified as Penguins. Plenty of franchises have won one Cup and then faded back into the pack. How many players can you name, without looking, off the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes?
Winning one Cup for Crosby was never enough. He was practically pre-ordained to at least win one. He needed (and continues to need) to win multiple Cups to justify his greatness and all his pre-draft hype. Now he and Malkin have won the same number of Cups as Lemieux and Jagr did together. The rest from here on out should just be gravy.
But is that how fans perceive it? There is a subset of any fanbase that believe their team, in whatever sport, should win their league’s ultimate prize every year. Anything less is a failure from the top (ownership, management) to the stars on the team to the guys on the end of the bench to the workers at the arena. For some, the other teams are just keeping the trophy warm for their team.
Naturally, that’s not realistic. Every sport prides itself on parity nowadays. That’s what keeps fan interest from going stale, the allure that this could be the year for their team. Prior to each season, probably 1/4 of the teams in a league are true contenders, 1/4 are in some stage of rebuilding, and the remaining 1/2 are somewhere in between. It’s always best to start off in the top quartile.
That’s where the Penguins find themselves at the outset of the 2016-17 season. It’s been a choppy start to the season, though, mostly because of the absence of team captain, employee #87, Sidney Crosby. After sustaining a concussion in the one of the final pre-season practices, Crosby has yet to hit the ice in a game. The team has gone through the motions to this point and looked like they’ve been celebrating all summer long.
For me, the Penguins have a three-year grace period before I’ll start to sweat about not getting a 3rd Cup for Crosby. Think back to the 2009 Cup-winning team. The next season, the 2010 Penguins lost to the Montreal Canadiens (this Gonchar olé to Travis Moen is a special lowlight), but for me it was attributable to the back-to-back Cup Finals deep runs taking a toll on the players. The 2011 team was wracked with injuries to Crosby and Malkin that saw them bow out to the Lightning. After that is when things got weird.
Both the 2012 and 2013 playoff teams had a whole host of issues, but chief among them was Marc-Andre Fleury’s sudden inability to stop a beach ball. Coupled with a team-wide lack of discipline against the 2012 Flyers, the Penguins that year were embarrassingly bounced from the playoffs. The 2013 team was, perhaps, one of the most loaded Penguin teams in history, especially after the trade deadline pickup of Jarome Iginla. But coach Dan Bylsma played the Hall of Fame-bound RW on the left wing, for reasons unknown to the general public. And Fleury was so bad, especially against the Islanders, that he was replaced by backup Tomas Vokoun. The 2013 Penguins were thoroughly outcoached and outclassed by the Bruins in their Eastern Conference Final defeat.
It was at this point that my faith started to waver. It seemed as if the Penguins were now drifting into that 1/2 of the league that is neither a contender nor a rebuilder; they were just a team that should make the playoffs, but not be much threat to do anything when they got there. This was borne out by their back-to-back playoff bouncings at the hands of the Rangers (thanks Carl Hagelin!) in both the 2014 and 2015 season.
So last year’s Cup win halted the drought at 7 seasons. Far too long for the talent assembled, but that’s what happens when injuries and incompetence are introduced into the equation. The Penguins are on the short, shortlist to win it again this year. They have a core of solid vets and rising young players that should be able to withstand the inevitable player movement over the next couple of years.
I’m not going to be disappointed if the Penguins don’t win this year; it’s incredibly hard to win a Cup, let alone back-to-back ones, in today’s NHL. But I will be disappointed if it takes another 7 years. There’s too much talent to not get one within three seasons.