Now that the 2018-19 NHL season is complete and the offseason is set to begin we are about to find out what lessons the Pittsburgh Penguins have learned about themselves.
Emotions were high following their Round 1 sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, and a mostly unpredictable postseason all over the league that saw the St. Louis Blues storm out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup will no doubt send teams in all sorts of directions trying to figure out the best course when it comes to constructing their rosters.
As I wrote over at NBC on Thursday, I fear a lot of teams are going to take the wrong lessons from the Blue’ success.
Will the Penguins be one of them? They have already gone down (in my opinion) the wrong path over the past two years.
We know one thing is for certain: There will be changes, it is just a matter of how big the changes actually are. In the immediate aftermath of the playoff exit there was talk and speculation that the changes would be significant, especially when general manager Jim Rutherford refused to acknowledge whether he saw Evgeni Malkin (EVGENI MALKIN!) as part of the team long-term. It also seemed inevitable that Phil Kessel would be traded and perhaps even the possibility for a Kris Letang trade. All of that, including the potential of a Kessel trade, seems to have cooled off significantly.
That is good for the Penguins.
Even with the disappointing showing in the playoffs, and even with a team that plays a drastically different style tha the Penguins finding championship success, this still is not an organization that needs a complete overhaul or tear down. It is a team that needs tweaks. It is a team that needs to get back to playing to its strengths and not trying to be something that is not.
There is no one way to win in the NHL, and just because a team won a championship a certain way does not mean you have to build your team in that image. There is such a fine line between winning and losing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that you are probably just one or two bounces away a completely different outcome. Are we talking about “heavy hockey” being the way to go if Dallas scores in double overtime in Game 7 against St. Louis? Very doubtful. But that is not really the point, the point is that you can do it with more than one style as long as you have players that are actually good at the basic skills of hockey (scoring goals and preventing goals). Play to your strengths. Do what you do best.
When looking at what the Penguins need to do I keep going back to the summer of 2015, before the back-to-back Stanley Cup wins.
That team was in a very similar, if not worse situation than this Penguins team is in right now.
They had a head coach that appeared to be in over his head with this roster.
They were just completely shut down in the first-round of the playoffs and never even really seemed close to winning.
They had to sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, needing a win on that day.
They looked like an organization that had hit its ceiling and seemed to be way too far away from another championship considering the trio of stars (Crosby, Malkin, Letang) they had on the roster.
They had a salary cap situation that was so difficult to maneuver that they were literally unable to dress an entire roster for a stretch at the end of the regular season.
Who would have looked at that and assumed the team was on the verge of a three-year run where they would win two Stanley Cups and nine playoff series? Pretty much no one. But they did it, and they did not do it by breaking apart their best players. They did it by adding another star (Kessel) and making small moves around the edges to find complementary pieces that fit their stars style of play. Those moves mostly involved players that did not seem to have much trade value at the time (Rob Scuderi, Brandon Sutter, David Perron). There was no doubt an element of luck in some of those moves working out the way they did, but it was still a better path to take than trading your foundation.
The problem with the Penguins making a major move with their core is that even though the Crosby, Malkin, Letang trio is several years older they are still GREAT players. It will be nearly impossible to get any sort of equal or fair compensation back in return for any of them, and if there is a lesson that the Penguins (and the rest of the NHL) should take from the St. Louis Blues it is that whatever team gets the best player in the trade is probably, more often than not, going to end up winning that trade. The Blues traded spare parts, and youth (Tage Thompson), and some future (first-round draft pick) for a No. 1 center, and it totally transformed their team. The Buffalo Sabres gave up that player and are probably even further away from a title than they were before the trade. One great player is still always better than two “good” players.
The Penguins can not lose sight of that over the next couple of weeks.
They also can not continue to get lost in their need to get “heavier” and have “pushback” because that is not the game that is going to work for them. They need players that can still complement the Crosbys, Malkins, Letangs, and Guentzels, and players from the back end that can get them the puck quickly, smoothly, and efficiently.
There are, of course, still big decisions to be made. Those decisions revolve around the likes Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, and Olli Maatta. They need to focus on shedding bad contracts, even if it means retaining some salary. They need to make tweaks.
There is still a championship level core on this team. It does not need a drastic overhaul with that group and the team does not need change its identity or style except for getting back to what works for this group. That is the lesson they should have taken away from the past two years. We are about to see if they did.