Dynasties don’t always fade away. Sometimes they just crumble and collapse into a smoldering pile of ruin that cannibalizes itself and everything around it.
Sure, we sometimes throw the word “dynasty” around in sports a little too loosely, and I admit I am probably doing that here for the purpose of this argument, but hey ... I needed a starting point. Even though NHL’s salary cap era has not produced a true “dynasty” comparable to the likes of the Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders, or Montreal Canadiens, there have been three teams that have stood out above the pack and achieved a level of success no other team has come close to matching.
The Los Angeles Kings won two Stanley Cups in three years.
The Chicago Blackhawks won three in six.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have won three (with a fourth appearance in the Stanley Cup Final) in 10 years.
Those three teams have combined to win eight of the Stanley Cups in the salary cap era, including eight of the previous 10.
While none of them on their own qualify as a true “dynasty,” they have still been the defining teams of this era.
Two of them, the Blackhawks and Kings, are already in the smoldering pile phase of their franchise progression.
The Kings have missed the playoffs more than they’ve made them since winning their second Stanley Cup in 2014, have not won a playoff series, and just wrapped up a 2018-19 season where they spent the year competing with the Ottawa Senators for the worst record in the league.
The Blackhawks have not won a playoff series in three years since their 2015 Stanley Cup win and have missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
Is this sort of bleak stretch in the Penguins’ future? Well, the long-term answer is most certainly yes, it is, because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not going to play forever, and there is going to come a point even when they are playing that they may not be able to carry the team to the playoffs. Hell, you don’t have to look far to see the track the Penguins have been on the past two years, going from back-to-back Stanley Cups, to a second-round exit, to a first-round sweep after clinching a playoff spot in Game 81 of the regular season.
That is coming down from the top of the mountain, friends, and there is nothing wrong with that. Nobody stays at the top forever, and at least if you are a Penguins, Kings, or Blackhawks fan you have a bunch of banners to show for it.
As the old saying goes: Banners hang forever.
But how close are the Penguins to truly falling to the bottom and living in the reality that Blackhawks and Kings have spent the past few years in (and maybe the next couple, at least)?
It will happen at some point, but I’m not sure the Penguins are there just quite yet.
First, even though the “core” of Crosby, Malkin, Letang, etc. are getting older, I feel like they have more of a graceful decline ahead of them than the core players of the Kings and Blackhawks.
The Kings’ core really wasn’t that impressive to begin with, was it?
Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are great — but that was about it. Their run of championships was never one that was built on skill or remarkably deep rosters. It was built on suffocating, systematic defensive work and hoping that Jonathan Quick could catch fire for a couple of months and rise above his otherwise mediocre track record as an NHL starting goalie. I’m not saying the Kings were frauds as champions (they were a legitimately great for three years!) but they just didn’t seem to have the type of roster that was set-up for long-term, sustained success over a decade or so.
Once their handful of high-level players started to slow down, there wasn’t much left around them to make up for it. When a player like, say, Dustin Brown loses a step, he doesn’t have much else to fall back on.
The Blackhawks are a little tougher to get a read on on where things went so sideways for them.
Corey Crawford’s health issues over the past two years have definitely had a negative impact on their overall performance, and when you lose a really good starting goalie and don’t have anyone to fall back on, that is going to create a lot of problems. I also think a lot of the Blackhawks’ problems are a little self-inflicted in the sense that they stayed too loyal to the wrong players (see: Seabrook, Brent) and made some irrational decisions based on one bad postseason result (trading a first-line player like Artemi Panarin to bring back a lesser player in Brandon Saad — one that they were, again, probably staying too loyal to because of the team success).
I don’t know if the Penguins have another Stanley Cup in their immediate future, but I’m also not ready to write them off as being contenders yet because even though players like Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Kessel (assuming they are still in Pittsburgh — as they should be) are going to begin to decline and slow down, they have a higher ceiling to come down from than players like Jonathan Toews or Anze Kopitar. A 33-or 34-year old Sidney Crosby is probably going to be a hell of a lot better and more impactful than the other two at the same age.
That helps. A lot.
What will also help a lot is learning from some of the the mistakes the Kings and Blackhawks did make.
I don’t think the Kings ever did anything to adapt to a changing NHL and just assumed they could keep scratching out 2-1 wins with a team that wasn’t overly skilled or deep. The Blackhawks made some bad decisions sticking with some of the wrong players and getting rid of the wrong players, while they also had some terrible luck (Crawford’s injuries, the demise of Marian Hossa’s career).
There is going to come a point in the future that the Penguins are going to be in a bad situation on the ice. They don’t have a strong prospect pool, the roster is getting older, and at some point the glory days of the Crosby-Malkin era are going to wrap up. It is inevitable, and there is not a single trade (or multiple trades) the Penguins can make this summer to “restock the cupboards” that is going prevent that from happening. All you can do is just keep trying to squeeze out another championship run with this core while you still have them and worry about the future ... in the future.