Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Perennial Contender: Penguins Needed to Hit Bottom Before Rising Up

This is the fourth article in a series of articles looking at and analyzing the success of the last five teams to raise the Stanley Cup. Be sure to read the first three articles in the series, “Where Have all the Dynasties Gone?”, “Detroit: Setting the Parameters of a Modern Day Dynasty” and “Detroit: End of an Era?”. The objective of this series is to search for the new magic formula to create a champion and whether that champion would be built to stand the test of time.

Today, we turn our focus to the 2009 Stanley Cup champions – the Pittsburgh Penguins, as we start analyzing the final four teams standing in this year’s Stanley Cup play-offs.



When compared to teams like Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal, the Pittsburgh franchise has have a relatively short yet storied history. The Penguins were founded in 1967 as one of the first expansion clubs in the league, and failed to really make a mark in the NHL until the early 1990’s. Between 1967 and 1983, the Penguins flirted with the play-offs, and on some occasions made a series out of the times it did make it.  However, it never made it to the Cup finals. The teams in that era did have some recognizable names such as Paul Gardner and Randy Carlyle (then as a Defenseman), but failed to build a supporting cast.

Then the Penguins hit rock bottom, finishing dead last in two straight seasons. This was the start of the Lemieux era in Pittsburgh. In 1984 a young player named Mario Lemieux was projected to be the next sure superstar and projected to be selected first overall in the draft. The Penguins put together three 6-game losing streaks over the final 21 games of the regular season to cement the first overall pick. The Penguins on more than one occasion were accused of purposely tanking the season to get the pick. The Penguins did select Lemieux with its first overall pick.

However, the Penguins would not win its first Stanley Cup until 1991. It would win its second Cup the following season in 1992. By then Pittsburgh had added veteran Brian Trottier to the roster via free agency and traded for such players as Paul Coffey, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Ron Francis and Ulf Samuallson. Each of these players complemented homegrown talent like Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Kevin Stevens to create a Championship team.

After the 1992 Cup win, the Penguins would remain a top team in the NHL until 1998, although they would not return to the Cup finals over that period. Then in 1998, the franchise already having filed for Bankruptcy protection, watched its hall of fame leader Mario Lemieux retire from hockey early due to health concerns.  The all-star team was dismantled and failed to become a dynasty.

Following that, Lemieux would not only return as a player for a few more season after retiring the first time, but would also convert the salary owed to him during the bankruptcy proceedings to gain a controlling interest of the financially troubled club. But at the time this was not enough to vault the club back into relevance and the club would trade stars like Jagr, Stevens, Alexei Kovelev and Martin Straka away to assist in the rebuilding process. The end of the Lemieux Era (as a player) had come to an end.


Current Era

As mentioned above, the last time the Penguins won the Cup was in 2009 after making the final and failing to win it in 2008 (lost to Detroit). Unlike the previous period, which could easily be marked as the Lemieux era, the current era is still being written and although it may end up being referred to as the Sidney Crosby era, only time will tell.

The creation of the current roster of the Penguins began back in 2003 when the team hit rock bottom and sold off its top players for prospects and picks. If ever there was a case for creating a championship team through the draft, the Penguins would make the strongest push for it.

Between 2003 and 2006 the Penguins would enjoy selecting a player with one of the top 2 picks in that draft. In 2003 they selected Marc-Andre Fleury with the 1st overall pick, in 2004, despite its efforts to tank the season and finish dead last (which they did) in order to select the next sure NHL superstar Alex Ovechkin with the number one pick, fate and the new draft lottery system (which was not around back when the Penguins were able to lose enough to get Lemieux) would have the Penguins lose to top pick to the Washington Capitals and they were left with selecting another young Russian forward with the 2nd overall pick named Evgeni Malkin. As fate would have it, although both Ovechkin and Malkin have become superstars in the game, I believe Pittsburgh ended up with the better player.

In 2005, luck in the lottery would change for the Penguins and they were granted the first overall pick in the draft and selected Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby, who would turn out to be the new face of the franchise. However, in 2005 there were still talks of the club going back into bankruptcy protection and even moved from the city as financial issues grew.

The Penguins on-ice play also did not improve and the club finished last again in 2006, and would again be hit by the draft lottery bug.  They slipped from the first overall pick, and instead selected highly touted two-way forward Jordan Staal with the 2nd overall pick.

Over the same period, the Penguins would also draft key players such as Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, who later would be moved in a trade to acquire James Neal.

During its 2008 and 2009 Cup runs, Fleury would lead the Penguins with stellar goaltending and Crosby, Malkin and Staal would form the most formidable centre trio in the entire NHL at its time. During the 2008 run, the Penguins would add Marion Hossa and Pascual Dupuis via trades to complement a strong homegrown base, but would fall to the Wings in the Cup final.

In 2009, the Penguins would suffer though a mid-season slump, one that caused the club to replace coach Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma. The move seemed to have its desired effect as the Penguins would go on to win its third Stanley Cup.

Over a period of four drafts the Penguins were able to select 4 cornerstone pieces that would lay the foundation of what could be the next dynasty in the NHL. After being so bad in the early 2000’s, the Penguins have turned things around and currently have made the Cup final twice over the past 5 seasons and are threatening to make another appearance this year.


So let’s break down the current team.


If there is one thing the current Penguins have in abundance, it is leadership. From top, down the club is as much a pillar or strength when it comes to leadership as the Red Wings are.

Management: The success of a franchise starts with the management of a club, and the Penguins have a strong general manager in Ray Shero. Bloomberg Business Week named the Penguins (under Shero) as the 3rd best spending efficiency clubs in professional sports. In a salary cap era it is not enough to be able to spot the best talent, but to do so while spending every penny wisely and Shero has been able to accomplish this so far. It is also making the tough calls, and Shero did that in 2009 when he fired Therrien and replaced him mid-season with AHL coach Bylsma. The move was bold at the time, but no one is questioning it any more.

The club is also lead by Lemieux. Now an owner Lemieux has first and foremost been a Penguin and a person who loves the game. Make no mistake, he is a businessman and certainly does not throw money around, but there is something to be said about an owner’s passion, and in this case it appears to be more about the game and the team than it is about an investment.

Coaching: In 2009, the Penguins hired Bylsma as its bench boss amid a mid-season slump. Not only did he help turn things around and lead the team from the bench to the 2009 Stanley Cup, he followed that up with being named the coach of the year in the NHL in 2011. In only a short tenure with the club Bylsma has become the winningest play-off coach in franchise history, a record that he continues to add to this season.

One of the biggest challenges he has faced during his tenure as coach is how to juggle his roster with injuries to key players. During his tenure both Malkin and Crosby have seen time on the IR and yet the Penguins had massed 3-straight 100-point seasons (prior to this shorten season, but the Penguins were well on its way to a 4th straight season of 100 points).

On Ice: Captain Crosby and alternate captain Malkin lead the club on the ice. The club has surrounded these two perennial all-stars with veteran leadership. Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow have been NHL captains of other clubs. There is little questioning Crosby’s presence in the game. Some will question his antics on the ice, and he can be thrown from his game if you get under his skin. Was he really considering dropping the gloves with Boston’s captain, Zdeno Chara, in the opening game of the conference finals?

But many forget that he is still very young and if he can stay healthy will have many more years to improve his leadership both on and off the ice. At the time he was named captain, he became the youngest captain in NHL history, unseating Vincent Lecavillier and Steve Yzerman for the honor. Time will tell if he can show the longevity of Yzerman in the role.



The current roster is an interesting mix of first round picks (10 altogether in the starting lineup, 3 of whom were drafted with the top two picks in their respective draft classes), other draftees and non-drafted players like Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.

It is a mix of experienced youth (Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Brandon Sutter) meets experienced veterans (Iginla, Morrow and Tamas Vokoun). The mix seems to be working. When Fleury struggled between the pipes, Vokoun stepped up and led the team to a series win over Ottawa. The team is built for a strong run at the Cup this year.

According to, the Penguins have 18 players under contract for the 2013-2014 and has just over $7,800,000 in projected cap space to fill out its roster. This does not include any buyout the team may choose to make in the off-season.

There is room to make changes and the team currently has Crosby, Fleury and Neal signed to long-term deals, which provides some stability to the current roster. The concern going forward is how long can the club keep the club together.

This off-season the Penguins will need to determine whether or not to bring back the likes of Iginla, Morrow, Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Douglas Murray, all of whom are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. Tyler Kennedy will also be looking for a raise as he will be a restricted free agent this summer.

With the cap space being what it is, the club will likely walk away from a number of the RFA’s unless they are willing to take a significant hometown discount. This is unlikely. The club also has to look to next year in which Malkin, Kunitz, Letang and Brooks Orpik’s contracts all come up for renewal. At that point the question will have to be asked, can the team afford to pay two centres more than $17 million worth of cap space and still have enough to put a competitive team around them.

For all those drooling at the thought of Malkin being shopped, remember that people had this same conversation about Aneheim earlier this season in respect of Ryan Getzlaf and Corry Perry. Only time will tell if Aneheim made the right decision in locking them both up to long-term deals. That said, the likelihood of Malkin becoming available is not high.

Three 100-point seasons in a row followed by a conference leading 72 points in a shortened season, two trips to the Stanley Cup finals with one win, is a stellar record. But not enough to make this Penguins team a dynasty, right? Could it be the start of one? Absolutely it would. Would a Cup win this season take the club over the threshold?  Not quite.  In looking at what people have referred to as dynasties in the past, the threshold is usually 4 Stanley Cup wins in an era. The Penguins fell short in the Lemieux era to get to this point, but that does not mean that they won’t make it this time around.

The club has youth on its side. We have heard the names Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Letang so much over the run mentioned above, many forget that they are all 28 years of age or younger, Crosby is still only 25 years old. The club under Shero has done a great job so far in recognizing talent and locking that talent up, I do not see that trend stopping any time soon. Unlike the Red Wings who have been attempting to replace the likes of Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom while looking forward and worrying about the eventual departure of Pavel Datsyuk, the Penguins have been able to lock up that core group of stars and can instead focus on finding the right compliment to those players each year.

With the cap in effect it will be impossible to keep the complete team around.  Iginla likely will only play for the Penguins this season.  It is certainly possible that we see the Penguins lift the Cup 3 or more times over the next 10 seasons.  As long as the Penguins can continue to draft smartly and move picks and prospects around, like they did this season to acquire Iginla, Murray and Morrow at the deadline, while providing support through the system like Beau Bennett did this season, the club can continue to be successful.

LWOS writer Ben Kerr wrote about the Penguins youth in his August 17, 2012 series Top Shelf Prospects. Out of the list of four top prospects he outlined in that article, one prospect, Joe Morrow, was used to acquire Brenden Morrow and a pick at the deadline and Simon Despres played in 33 games this season with the big club. Although I do not see another Crosby or Malkin coming up in the system, I do see a stream of character players and contributors coming up.

Although the Penguins faithful suffered through some horrible years in the early 2000’s, the pain appears to have been necessary in order to assist in the rebuilding of the franchise that appears to be built for the long run. By hitting rock bottom, drafting smartly, providing a place players want to play (Iginla) and having strong leadership, Pittsburgh has put themselves in a position where becoming a dynasty is possible.

Thanks for reading – as always feel free to leave comments below and follow me our hockey department on twitter @IswearGaa. @lastwordBKerr@BigMick99, and @LastWordOnNHL, and follow the site @lastwordonsport.

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photo credit: wstera2 via photopin cc


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