The Pittsburgh Penguins never rate very high on prospect rankings or organizational farm system outlooks.
They have not picked at the top of the draft in nearly two decades, they usually trade away their first-round draft pick (and sometimes their second-round draft pick as well), and when they trade for players it is always them sending a prospect away for an established, proven, NHL veteran that can help them try to win the Stanley Cup right now. Because of that they never seem to bring any young talent into the organization.
It is the right approach for a team that has big money superstars and future Hall of Famers. Most teams never get players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, and if you do get all of three of them at the same time in the same age group you owe it to them, yourself, your team, and your fans to go all in on trying to win a Stanley Cup every season.
That approach has always left people worried about what the team might look like when Crosby, Malkin, and Letang eventually retire. My response to that has always been “who really cares, you got nearly two decades of constant Stanley Cup contending hockey, four Stanley Cup Finals, and three Stanley Cups as of now.” But there has been an interesting development over the past season or so.
That development is that the Penguins are, very quietly, a lot more than just their big three superstars.
So far this season the Penguins have yet to have Crosby or Malkin in their lineup.
Jake Guentzel missed a game.
Zach Aston-Reese missed two games.
Bryan Rust is sidelined.
Kris Letang missed a game.
Jeff Carter missed a game.
Despite all of that they are still 3-0-2 and have eight of a possible 10 points in the standings while playing a really tough schedule to open the season. They played Saturday’s game against Toronto without, arguably, their five best players, and won by a 7-1 margin.
It is also not really a fluky result so far. They may have had a couple of lucky bounces against Toronto on some goals, but they have mostly carried the play this season. If you go back to the start of the 2020-21 season, the Penguins have outscored teams by an 82-55 margin when in more than 1,700 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice.
In all even-strength situations that goal differential improves to 100-65 during that stretch.
That is extremely impressive.
While there is an element of a percentage wave to that goal differential, it is not like the Penguins have received consistently stellar goaltending during that stretch. Their possession and underlying numbers are also not bad. They are mostly 50-50 splits, which is still pretty good considering that is happening with two Hall of Famers sitting on the bench or in the press box.
Even though they have lacked draft picks over the years the Penguins have still done a solid job developing talent with what they have had to work with. They have found some gems in the draft, from role players like Teddy Blueger to impact players like Guentzel and Rust. They have found undrafted free agents like Aston-Reese and more recently Drew O’Connor. They have made the occasional strong trade to bring in a young player like John Marino or Marcus Pettersson. They have found productive veterans like Kasperi Kapanen and Jeff Carter.
Now, there have been an awful lot of misses in there on some of these moves as well, especially toward the end of the Jim Rutherford years. But the organizational depth is a lot better than it sometimes gets credit for being. This is not to say the Penguins no longer need Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. In the short-term, they absolutely still do. They do not want to play this entire season, or even extended period of time, without them. But in the short-term they have enough depth to get by and still win games rather convincingly, and should have the type of supporting cast that could still make them a Stanley Cup contender when those three players are able to get back in the lineup.