I would like to preface this post with a trigger warning: the optimists in the community will not want to read any of this because much of it assumes the Penguins will not climb out of the deep and desperate hole they’ve dug themselves in the first quarter of the season. If you’re not mature enough to handle the possibility that the Penguins could end the season with a high lottery pick rather than a Cup, then maybe don’t continue reading. Please understand that it is my position that either a Cup or a high lottery pick are both positive outcomes for this season, and that pretty much anything else (specifically, a near-miss to make the playoffs or a playoff exit before the Conference Finals) is not desirable. I wrote this post in consideration of the more likely scenario of the two positive positions. With three-quarters of the season still to go, anything is still possible, of course, but I would urge you all to not rule out this “worst case scenario” that I put forth below.
The 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins are not off to a great, or even good, or even average, or even below average start. Though many of them are likely too young to be our readers, there are some Penguins fans who have not seen a Penguins team start out a season this poorly. You’d have to go back eleven years, to the 2007-08 campaign, to see a season that had the Penguins winning seven games or less in their first eighteen games. And yet, in that eleven years, the Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs once.
Last Monday, our peers over at PensBurgh laid out in detail the Penguins’ franchise history when starting the season with seven or fewer wins in their first eighteen games, and it is not pretty. Twenty-two times in Penguins history the team has started out this poorly, and only eight times have they turned things around enough to make the playoffs. But we are used to seeing this edition of the Penguins be in the hunt for the Cup; after all, five times in the last eleven years have they been in the final four, winning the Cup three times. However, only two of those eight playoff teams were in the final four for the Cup: the 1969-70 team, and the 2007-08 team.
Because they’re the most recent team on the list, I’m going to use the 2007-08 team as an example for a moment. Incidentally, those old enough to remember that team should know that they are not the first team in the Crosby/Malkin era to make the playoffs; rather, it was the team from the year before, in 2006-07. But the 2007-08 Penguins marked the first time this era of Penguins hockey would make it to the Stanley Cup Final, losing in six games to the Detroit Red Wings. That Penguins team was one of the youngest teams in the NHL, fifth-youngest in fact, at an average of 26.9 years old; that would be the eighth-youngest team in today’s NHL. By contrast, this season’s Penguins aren’t terribly old but they are in the top-third of the League (average: 28.5 years old) and that ranking would have been about the same in 2008. And, of course, the following year, the Penguins would break through and win the Cup for the first time since 1993, although it did take firing Michel Therrien and replacing him with Dan Bylsma to help break through that barrier.
Mind you, this isn’t me advocating for the Penguins to fire Mike Sullivan; although I do see reason to believe he should be replaced, there’s nothing going right with the Penguins right now and no one thing is going to fix them. But, I am going to make an argument for the Penguins if they maintain their shittiness on par with the aforementioned history of bad starts. You see, pretty much every team that has gone on to championship success had to start somewhere, and almost every time it wasn’t by being consistently mediocre, either by just barely making or missing the playoffs year after year. It was by being bad, no good, awful, and terrible. So, while the Penguins missing the playoffs is a gray cloud, the silver lining to that cloud is the Entry Draft.
With PensBurgh’s list of bad starts, I went back and looked at how the teams that did miss the playoffs subsequently (thanks Ungaba) went on to draft, and the results are pretty positive:
2006: 2nd overall (Jordan Staal)
2005: 1st overall (Sidney Crosby)
2004: 2nd overall (Evgeni Malkin)
2003: 1st overall (Marc-Andre Fleury)
2002: 5th overall (Ryan Whitney)
1990: 5th overall (Jaromir Jagr)
1988: 4th overall (Darrin Shannon?)
1986: 4th overall (Zarley Zalapski)
1985: 2nd overall (Craig Simpson)
1984: 1st overall (Mario Lemieux)
1983: 15th overall (Bob Errey)
1978: 25th overall (Mike Meeker??)
1974: 8th overall (Pierre Larouche)
1971: 18th overall (Brian McKenzie??)
1969: 15th overall (Rich Kessell?)
Obviously the Penguins of the 1960s and 1970s are not worth analyzing in this context, but starting with drafting Mario Lemieux in 1984 and all the way through to taking Jordan Staal second in the 2006 Entry Draft, the Penguins have missed the playoffs ten times and come away with a top-five draft pick. In the 1980s it took a little while of compiling talented players (and…Darrin Shannon?) and turning some of those players into more useful ones via trades to eventually put the Penguins on the path of winning two straight Cups and pulling off an eleven-year playoff streak that saw the Penguins make two other final four appearances. Then the 2000s happened and once again the Penguins compiled talented players (and…Ryan Whitney) which eventually led them to their present eleven-year playoff streak, three Cups, and a couple other Conference Finals appearances.
I know that no one wants to see the Penguins fail (I would much rather them just keep winning Cups), but the beauty of failure is that it is often a stepping stone to success. For all the hope and optimism in the fanbase that this Penguins team can turn things around and climb their way back to the playoffs, there is no historical precedent for the team to do so and win the Cup which, given the aging state of the Penguins, is the only positive outcome that can be hoped for. To reinforce that argument, I also compiled a list of how the Penguins drafted in years that they had seven wins or fewer to start the season and still managed to make the playoffs:
2008: 120th overall (Nathan Moon)
2000: 18th overall (Brooks Orpik)
1997: 17th overall (Robert Dome)
1981: 28th overall (Steve Gatzos)
1979: 31st overall (Paul Marshall)
1977: 30th overall (Jim Hamilton)
1976: 2nd overall (Blair Chapman)
1970: 7th overall (Greg Polis)
A whole lot of who and what and why, plus Brooks Orpik. Long story short, the Penguins might be better off staying in the basement and seeing what they can come up with in next summer’s draft. Right now, the Penguins are in line for the third or fourth overall pick, and I can only imagine the outrage around the League if these Penguins were able to add an impact player for another shot at the Cup next season. As indicated, this Penguins team is one of the oldest in the League, and many of their oldest players are their key players: Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel, Hornqvist, Brassard (maybe not so key),
Johnson and Cullen (LOL j/k). They have not done a great job drafting in the first round since 2006 and they have found talented players in later rounds, but their prospect pool is pretty shallow, a consequence of trying to win now while those key players are still amongst the League’s best and most productive, and there will soon come a time that the team will need to transition to restocking the farm and getting ready for the twilights of those player’s careers.
Coming away from a bad season with a high-end first round pick is always a good place to start, so why not now? Naturally, this would require the Penguins to continue losing, angering the shortsighted members of the fanbase and demoralizing the players, but, to be frank, general manager Jim Rutherford and his brand-new three-year extension are playing with house money and can afford to take that risk for at least one season. This is all, of course, if Rutherford doesn’t trade that first round pick away for the fifth straight season. I have to imagine he’s smart enough to hold on to it until at least the trade deadline at the end of February, when that pick has the second-highest potential value (the highest value being when its exact selection is known after the Draft Lottery), but Rutherford could be enticed by another GM offering a prospect with upside in the next season or so in tandem with a depth player who could upgrade the team now. Again, this is the hypothetical paragraph.
What is known is that the Penguins are very, very unlikely to win the Cup from the position they’re in now, and while it is dissatisfying to everyone, they would be better served phoning it in for the rest of the season and turning their 2019 first round pick into someone who can help them win in the coming years.
Epilogue: Since I finished this article last week, the Penguins went 2-0-2 in their last four games, winning six of a possible eight points, for a 75% points percentage. Obviously this is much better than the rate they were at before, 47.2%. With sixty games left on the schedule, if they keep up that same 75% pace, they’ll obtain ninety points and end the season with 113 points, which would be the second-most points in franchise history, just ahead of the 111 points they won two years ago and a few hairs behind the 1992-93 Penguins that nabbed 119 points in their bid to three-peat. It would be extraordinary for the Penguins to keep up that rate, but for context the 2012-13 Penguins completed the lockout-shortened season winning three-quarters of their games, so it’s not impossible. Ultimately, a playoff-bound team is often only worth taking seriously in the last six-to-eight weeks of the season. If the Penguins keep up their current points pace of 52.3%, they’ll be the “best” team in Penguins history to not make the playoffs. One way or another, they have to continue gathering points; if they win at least 34 games from here on they ought to make the playoffs. From there, what happens is anyone’s guess.