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Penguins rank highly in perspectives taking in the NHL’s salary cap era

A couple of different studies come to the same conclusion: it’s been a golden era for the Penguins over the last 15+ seasons

Columbus Blue Jackets v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Saw a couple of cool articles during this “calm before the storm” week of the NHL draft and free agency that’s soon to be upon us.

Summer is a perfect time to look back and make sense of trends and the history that has been made, and here are a couple of good examples. It gets to a conclusion that won’t be breaking news, but is worth repeating every chance we get: enjoy this era of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey while it lasts, because even though occasionally frustrating, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

That was a cool piece that assigned value for teams in the salary cap era (starting in 2005-06) for each season. Teams got points for making the playoffs, more for advancing further like the Conference or Stanley Cup Final and then more value for winning the Cup. Since the Penguins have as many Cups as anyone (3) in this time period, naturally they come out looking good. Like, first place good.

Not only that, but Pittsburgh will remain in first place next summer at this time if the scoring stays the same (barring Tampa or Chicago winning the Cup), which goes to show how much success they’ve piled up over the years.

One item that stood out was the four Stanley Cup Final appearances for the Pens in this era. As we remember and also remind that playoff success is so fleeting and hard in the NHL, only seven teams in the salary cap era have multiple SCF appearances. This now includes, unbelievably, a Vegas Golden Knights team that has only existed as a franchise for six seasons. Of those seven teams, a few of them haven’t been relevant on the ice in a long, long time (Detroit and Chicago).

Tampa, and again Vegas, deserve a lot of attention and praise for what they’ve done, but an exercise like that done by The Athletic goes to show how much success and accomplished the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era in Pittsburgh as been these last almost 20 years.

That kind of last success leads into the second article to highlight today:

Travis Yost’s data for this TSN article picks up in 2007 (which, isn’t the worst starting point for the Pens since 2005-06 was very forgettable). Yost focuses on the two teams who have found lasting success in goal differential over the years to highlight their consistency and staying power in the Penguins and Boston Bruins.

Both teams have shown an extraordinary ability to reload talent and deliver contenders year after year, and betting against either organization has always been a losing proposition. Sustaining this type of performance in a hard-cap, draft lottery-driven league that disadvantages winners is extraordinarily difficult.

Dealing with the salary cap and losing players that they would rather have kept has been a way of life for the Penguins since 2008. There have been so many players over the years that have moved on as free agents that it will almost stop you in your tracks if you go back and think about it...Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Rob Scuderi (when his loss meant something!), Sergei Gonchar, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Jussi Jokinen, Justin Schultz, Cody Ceci, Evan Rodrigues to a degree Marian Hossa, Jarome Iginla and Jordan Staal. In a few weeks we might be adding Jason Zucker to the list.

All names that the team would have loved to have kept, but the league’s instituted financial pressures made fitting them in an impossibility and Pittsburgh watched them walk as free agents for no return (aside from Staal, who was traded when role and salary demands couldn’t be met). That’s a lot of talent out the door.

Pittsburgh was similarly situated, with a youthful dynamic trio in Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang keying multiple championship runs. But consider how their core has aged, too: Crosby is now 35; Malkin and Letang 36. All three are not only in the twilight of their careers, but have significantly more mileage than their peers, owing to so many deep postseason runs.

Yost likes Boston to continue on longer than the Pens, due to age of key players like Pastrnak/MacAvoy against the older core of Pittsburgh. That’s debatable if true, but last year’s results and wide discrepancy in goal differential (the Bruins were +128, the Pens -2).

But these might be the two toughest front office jobs heading into 2023-24. Incredibly high expectations, impressively little flexibility, and the reality that Father Time comes for us all.

There are fascinating off-seasons ahead for both franchises. Don Sweeney and Dubas have a series of remarkably difficult roster decisions, and the pressure in these markets won’t abate an ounce until we start to see real capitulation in performance.

It’s interesting to see how people outside of Pittsburgh or the Penguin bubble view things from their perspectives. Personally, I would disagree with that outlook. Are the Pens likely to be a top team in the East or NHL in 4-5 years? No. But their good players are still good (see point No 6), all a manager has to do it fit the rest of the puzzle together in a competent way for them to at least be a playoff team.

While several markets and situations might be “easier” or end up better in 4-5 years, they still have a lot of the challenge ahead of them to acquire or accumulate elite talent. Pittsburgh’s best players might be very old for elite pro hockey players, but they’re still elite. And with some wise moves that improve on Ron Hextall’s puny batting average, the Pens should be able to look like a viable team in goal differential and win more games in the next few seasons before two of the best in their era hang ‘em up for good.