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Are the Penguins on the path toward a sudden Blackhawks-like decline?

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Nobody really seems to understand why the Chicago Blackhawks declined so rapidly and why it should be easy for the Penguins to avoid that in the near future.

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Two Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

It is not exactly a smoldering hot take to suggest the Pittsburgh Penguins may be on the downside of the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era. Because they are. The playoff success has slowed down, the three most important and highest paid players on the team are in their mid-30s, and there is going to come a point in the next few years where, for one reason or another (trade, retirement, whatever), one of them is no longer going to be a Penguin.

There is also going to come a point when the entire trio is no longer productive or even playing, a development that is going to necessitate a rebuild.

But with the Penguins bowing out far earlier than expected in another postseason, one of the popular talking points going on right now is that “the window” is inching further and further closed (if it is not already entirely closed) and that the Penguins could be on the verge of becoming what the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have become in recent years. Recent champions that have fallen into oblivion and are now near the bottom of the NHL.

It is an easy parallel to make given the success of all three teams, the way they were all built, and the way their success eventually started to slow down before leaving them in their current state.

There is one thing that often times gets overlooked in this discussion, and that is HOW the Blackhawks and Kings ended up going down their paths, and the way one of them — the Blackhawks — accelerated that process through some disastrous mismanagement at the top. With what was perhaps an overreaction to a couple of early postseason exits.

Before we dig into the Blackhawks, I feel like the Kings are probably the weirdest of these three teams. Even when they were winning Stanley Cups they were never a dominant regular season team. They actually missed the playoffs one year with the same number of points (95) that they finished with the year they won their first Stanley Cup. They followed that up with a regular season performance that resulted in more points (102) than they had in any year of their peak, and what was the franchise’s highest point total in nearly three decades. While Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty were elite players, it was never a team built around superstars. It was a team that slowed the game down to a crawl, wore teams down, and received a couple of all-time great postseason goaltending performances to take them to a couple of championships. They fell off because they simply did not have enough elite talent.

The Blackhawks are the team that is probably most comparable to the Penguins here. Or at least the one we should be looking at to take lessons from.

It is strange how rapidly this team declined into nothing.

During the 2016-17 season the Blackhawks were two years removed from their third Stanley Cup in six years and had won 50 games for the best record in the Western Conference and third best record in the entire NHL. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were still only 28 years old (one and two years younger than Crosby and Malkin were when they were winning Stanley Cup No. 3 that same season) and they had a 25-year-old Artemi Panarin on the roster.

They had some aging players. Some players retired (Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell). But there was still a big-time core in place that should have kept them competitive. But it was after that postseason — their second straight First Round exit — that management started to really lose its minds and accelerated the team’s decline.

It should go without saying, even though it still needs pointed out, that good teams will always lose in the playoffs. Sometimes they will lose early. It is not necessarily a sign that the team needs major changes or has to be broken up. It is just the nature of the beast where every season 30 teams fail and only one of them achieves its ultimate goal. The Blackhawks had two straight First Round exits between Stanley Cups one and two. The Penguins had several early postseason flameouts between the 2009 and 2016 championships. Playoff hockey can be unpredictable in any season. Sometimes good teams lose early because, well, that’s just hockey.

The Blackhawks’ response to that 2017 exit was to make dramatic changes across the board, and not for the better.

It was also not necessarily done with the short-term salary cap in mind. The result has been consecutive non-playoff seasons and what should have been a third consecutive non-playoff season until the 24-team Return To Play format gave them a chance to make it this season.

So what all happened to them to speed up the decline?

Following that 2016-17 season they lost Hossa and Campbell — two mainstays on their dynasty teams — to retirement. Even though neither player was in their prime, they could still contribute and were big losses. But there was also nothing here they could control as a front office.

What they could control was every other move they decided to make. There were a lot of mistakes.

  • Brent Seabrook was one year into a massive contract that was almost universally panned the moment it was signed as being a potentially disastrous move. At this point it was already looking dubious.
  • Following the 2016-17 season the Blackhawks made the indefensibly bad decision to trade Panarin, still only 25 years old and already an elite first-line scorer, to reacquire Brandon Saad. This move came one year after they used Teuvo Teravainen, arguably their best young player, as bait to dump Bryan Bickell’s contract on Carolina. This would be like if the Penguins came out this offseason and traded John Marino so they could get rid of Jack Johnson. That means in the span of one calendar year the Blackhawks traded TWO first-line players, both age 25 or younger, and only brought back one middle-six winger to the NHL roster in return. The Blackhawks’ position at the time was that they were going to have to deal Panarin in the future anyway because of the cap, and that may have been true. But they had enough salary cap space to keep him for the two years he was under contract for (Saad’s contract was a literal wash on the cap ... they had equal $6 million salary cap hits) and should have been in a position where keeping an elite player was worth it, even if for only two years. They still had a window to win!
  • They also traded one of their top defensive players in Niklas Hjalmarsson — a stunner of a trade at the time — to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin. Like the Panarin for Saad swap, this is a trade that did nothing to save any short-term salary cap space. The savings on the Panarin/Hjalmarsson for Saad/Murphy swap was $400,000 over the next couple of seasons, which was not even enough to sign a player to the league minimum salary.
  • The result of all of these moves were the Blackhawks losing two of their top-four defenders (Hjalmarsson and Campbell) and two of their top-five scorers (Panarin and Hossa) and not really adequately replacing them. That does not include the previous year’s trade of Teravainen to Carolina. That is a ton of talent walking out the door and not being replaced. That is difficult to overcome, especially when a couple of those moves (Panarin and Teravainen specifically) were self inflicted and TOTALLY avoidable.

The other important factor was the 2017-18 season was the start of Corey Crawford’s injury issues that robbed him of most of the next seasons. When Crawford was in the lineup that year the Blackhawks were still playing at a 100-point pace with him in goal. But injuries limited him to just 28 games and the Blackhawks had, quite literally, no other reliable goaltending option behind him. That, perhaps more than anything, helped sabotage their season.

Their attempt to address the goaltending depth the next offseason was almost as futile as doing nothing at all when they turned to a 34-year-old Cam Ward.

It did not work.

So how does this all relate to the current Penguins and what they can learn from this?

  • For one, the Penguins are not really in a position to lose players as good as Hossa and Campbell to retirement unless something really weird happens this offseason. So that already helps.
  • The big HOPE has to be that the goaltending situation does not fall apart like Chicago’s did, whether it be Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray, or Tristan Jarry or somebody else (there are some good goalies available) they should be at least passable in net.
  • The other HOPE is that the Penguins do not make any bone-headed and avoidable trades that actively make the team worse. Like trading two first-line players for one second-line player, or getting rid of a key young player to get rid of a bad contract. This is the area where you need some self control and common sense.

The Blackhawks’ rapid decline was not the result of their star players making too much money, or them getting older and declining too rapidly. It was a perfect storm of some bad luck (Crawford injuries, Hossa retiring) and some horrific roster decisions that did not need to be made (Panarin, Teravainen, Hjalmarsson, not finding a reliable backup goalie).

There is no guarantee that the Penguins are going to win another Stanley Cup with this core because, well, even when they were in their prime that was always going to be a challenge. But there is also no reason to believe that this run of competitive hockey and having a Stanley Cup contender is necessarily coming to an end this season or the year after.

They are not the Blackhawks just yet, and they do not have to be.