While we wait for things to happen (like the Pittsburgh Penguins hiring a new general manager and president of hockey operations), I have some thoughts to share!
One of the ongoing cliches in sports is “anything can happen in the playoffs”: it ultimately doesn’t matter how well your team did in the regular season, it’s how you perform in the postseason that matters. The Florida Panthers are showing us all (but especially the Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Carolina Hurricanes) what that cliche can actually mean. They were the last team in the playoffs, qualifying on the second-to-last day of the regular season, a playoff berth that came at the expense of a Penguins team that gave no indication that they would have performed as the Panthers have for the past month.
All season long Pittsburgh struggled to make itself relevant, but particularly in the last couple of months on the schedule as they not only couldn’t beat the teams they needed to (division rivals, playoff-caliber foes, etc.) but they also couldn’t beat the teams they probably should have (they lost to both Columbus and Chicago in the span of three days) and otherwise beat themselves by giving up leads at the worst times. Meanwhile, the Panthers battled to stay in the playoff race, going 17-10-2 from the start of February and have continued to battle in the postseason, getting past the Presidents Trophy-winning Bruins and then humbling the Maple Leafs before now, on the cusp of making the Stanley Cup Finals. They are playing with house money, which is ironic because they may end up facing the Vegas Golden Knights in the Finals.
All this to say that I propose one small change to the cliche: “Anything can happen in the playoffs, so long as you have the right team.” There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if they had made the playoffs, Pittsburgh would never have made it as far as Florida has. The Penguins exhibited scarcely little of the heart or fight that the Panthers have, and sometimes that’s all it takes for a team to go from being the #8 seed in the conference to being in the discussion for the Stanley Cup.
The question for me then is: what will it take for Pittsburgh to go from where they ended up this past season to being a Stanley Cup contender again? How much time is on that clock? The fact is that so much damage has been done to this franchise by not only Ron Hextall but also Jim Rutherford since the Penguins won the Cup in 2017 that it might take longer than one season to get into the championship discussion again.
In case you don’t look around for your Penguins tidbits, head coach Mike Sullivan is leading the charge to improve the standing of the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It makes sense if you look at how this team achieved its success in the past ten years: so many of their best players were raised from within, like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, and Tristan Jarry; all of those guys started out with the Baby Pens (all but Dumoulin were coached by Sullivan in WB/S) and none of them were first rounders. Ergo, none of them were sure bets until they were honed in the minors. Since they all came to Pittsburgh (Sullivan included), the Baby Pens have been bereft of talent, partially because of the general managers choosing to trade what would generally have been late first-round picks, but the argument is also because what players they have taken simply haven’t had the proper raising. What few talented players the Penguins may have had in their system are either going to waste or, in a few rare cases (like Daniel Sprong or Filip Gustavsson), just needed the time and opportunity to shine. As we’ve seen, talented players can come out of later rounds (Kris Letang also), so long as they’re not left to stagnate or thrown to the wolves too soon.
It will be interesting then to see if the GM and PoHO are on board with Sullivan in this regard. It makes more sense financially as well to promote from within rather than hire and sign players through free agency to improve your team. For at least this offseason, I don’t think the new GM will have much of a choice in this regard, especially since the team has seven expiring UFAs, including a top-six winger (Jason Zucker), a top-four defenseman (Dumoulin), and its starting goaltender (Jarry), with none of these possible departures having any serious replacements in the franchise’s pipeline. Would the team throw the likes of Sam Poulin, Nathan Legare, Ty Smith, Owen Pickering, or any of the goaltenders on the WB/S roster into the ocean and see if they sink or float?
With that in mind, the Penguins have the 14th overall selection in next month’s draft. Will they keep it or trade it? In the context of the aforementioned discussion, I suspect Sullivan would very much prefer to keep it and hope to have a useful piece of the roster before his contract expires in a few years. And considering that the first round picks the team has taken of late have stagnated (Poulin, Legare) or been traded as part of deals that have generally made the team worse, it makes sense to take the safe approach and let what will be the team’s highest draft pick in eleven years naturally develop and see how it goes. But the stated goal, repeatedly, has been to keep the team’s championship window pried open for as long as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are with the Penguins, which is as few as two seasons and as many as five. Unless Pittsburgh finds an undiscovered gem in the draft, they don’t have a whole lot of time to wait.