It is sometimes easy to take for granted just how successful the Sidney Crosby era has been for the Pittsburgh Penguins and how long that run of sustained success has been. The Chicago Blackhawks, their season opening opponent for the 2023-24 NHL season, should help serve as a nice reminder for just how long it has been given the rise, fall, and now hopeful rise of their franchise once again.
The Blackhawks have gone through several entire cycles in the time period that the Penguins have been competing for Stanley Cups, and they are trying to start a new upward trajectory this season with the arrival of prized prospect and No. 1 overall pick Connor Bedard.
The Penguins’ window for contention really started to swing wide open during the 2006-07 season when Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal arrived in Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury took over as the consistent starting goalie, and the team made its first playoff appearance since the 2000-01 season.
It was during that same season that the Blackhawks were also starting their own ascent in the NHL.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were starting to make their presence feelt in the NHL, Jonathan Toews had just been picked with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 draft, and they were still one year away from getting the No. 1 overall pick that would turn out to be winger Patrick Kane.
Even though the Penguins and Blackhawks’ initial rise in the mid-2000s was on a similar timeline, the Blackhawks were a couple of years behind the Penguins. When Crosby and the Penguins were playing in the 2007-08 Stanley Cup Final, Chicago was still building toward something and a year away from making the playoffs.
They would eventually get there in 2008-09 (the year the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup in the Crosby era) in reaching the Western Conference Final and really start to put themselves on the map.
It was at that point that they started their mini-dynasty that would produce three Stanley Cups in a span of six years, winning it all in 2010, 2013 and again in 2015. It was during that time that Chicago was seen as one of the gold standard franchises in the league for on-ice success, being the first team to three Stanley Cups in the salary cap era and consistently reaching at least the Western Conference Final.
But looking back on it, it was kind of amazing how short their time on the top actually was. At least compared to what teams like the Penguins and Capitals have done over the same time period. That run for the Blackhawks lasted less than a decade and featured nine consecutive playoff appearances, while they won just three total playoff games (and zero series) over the last two years of it. As quickly as they arrived as contenders, the whole thing seemed to fizzle starting with the 2017-18 season where they would miss the playoffs.
That season began a steady decline that saw just a single playoff appearance over the next six years (and even that was during the expanded playoff year where they finished with the 23rd best record in hockey). Contrary to the popular narrative that gets paraded around, it was not necessarily just the result of their core players getting older and decline. While that did play some role, at least as it related to players like Marian Hossa, Seabrook and Keith, there were also some terrible hockey decisions made by the prior front office as it related to the salary cap, who they retained, and who they traded.
There were bad contracts handed out, devastating trades and just flat out bad, nonsensical moves (Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad, giving away Teuvo Teravainen, the Seth Jones debacle) that expedited their decline. It resulted in the start of a full-scale rebuild that began with the 2022-23 season that saw them finish with the second-worst record in the league and win the Bedard lottery.
The Bedard win and arrival should be the beginning of another eventual rise, assuming he pans out and they are able to get it right around him.
Whether it works out or not, it is still remarkable to look back over the past two decades to see how Chicago started at the same point as the Penguins, built themselves into a contender at nearly the same time period, had their time on top, completely fell off, and then started to rise again in the same time that the Penguins have remained near the top.
It took the Penguins until the 2022-23 season to miss the playoffs, and even then it was only by a single point. Their run of contention started before Chicago’s and has kept going for what might be almost another decade after Chicago’s ended (assuming the Penguins still have another couple of years to compete and it takes Chicago another couple of years to fully rebuild again).
There are some that might look at Chicago’s current rebuild and wonder if maybe the Penguins should have followed a similar path over the past few years and kickstarted a rebuild of their own. Because when the Crosby-Malkin-Kris Letang era does come to a close in the next few years and the Penguins eventually have to start their own rebuild, Chicago might already be at a point where it is ready to contend again. But I reject that mindset because the Penguins ran themselves well enough, and had better core players, that it enabled them to remain consistently competitive. As long as you have that ability you owe it to yourself, your fans and especially your players to keep going all in. There is no need to completely rebuild and willingly make yourself bad before you have to do that. It is also worth mentioning, again, how Chicago did not really actively choose to start rebuilding. They got bad through mismanagement and bad decisions.
Overall, the point here is that the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era is going to produce nearly two decades of sustained success and competitive hockey in a salary cap league that was supposed to limit that sort of thing from happening. Looking at how quickly teams like Chicago and Los Angeles rose, declined, and needed to rebuild to rise again all within that same time period is a testament and reminder to how long the Penguins have been able to do this. They deserve credit for that and it should not be taken for granted.