Why does Sidney Crosby keep doing this, after literally having accomplished everything in his career that a player can accomplish?
“I think this feeling right now. You can’t match this,” said Crosby, after winning his second-straight Stanley Cup and third of his career on Sunday night. “This is what it’s all about, and to be able to share that with a group of guys, and a lot of them guys that you’ve played a long time with and understand how difficult it is and what you’ve had to go through and that kind of thing, to share it with family and friends. That’s what it’s about.”
Victory is a narcotic, and Crosby is clearly addicted.
What’s left for him? Jeff Marek, on our podcast, joked that winning with another team would be one potential goal, but it’s hard to imagine Crosby ever being motivated to leave Pittsburgh. (Maybe he and Nathan MacKinnon take their talents somewhere one day as Cole Harbour bros.)
But here’s what we’re thinking, as far as next mountain to climb:
No one’s done it since the New York Islanders from 1981-83, as part of their four-Cup dynasty. Mario never did it. Gretzky never did it (thanks to Patrick Roy). No one’s gotten even two in a row in the cap era before the Penguins did.
And you know what? It’s entirely possible the Penguins could win again next postseason, for three straight Stanley Cups.
Here are six reasons why:
Sidney and Geno
Let’s be real: The reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to repeat comes down to four factors: Superb playoff goaltending from Fleury and Murray; a great coaching staff, from Mike Sullivan’s adjustments to Jacques Martin’s defensive assignments to Rick Tocchet’s lighting a fire under Phil Kessel’s ass when necessary; and, of course, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
You have two of the top three players of their generation – the generation right before McDavid and Matthews – on the same team, on the same power play and on two different scoring lines. The Nashville Predators had the best top four defensemen in the NHL this season. Out of six games, they were able to contain both lines at the same time once.
The joke that was Malkin not making the NHL 100 list finally has a punchline, which is him leading the playoffs in scoring, winning a third Stanley Cup and having the entirety of the hockey world invalidating that list because of his absence. His line with Phil Kessel drew the Predators’ top shutdown pairing – Subban and Ekholm – for a reason.
Which, of course, meant that Crosby’s line doesn’t see the top pairing. And that’s the choice every team has to make against the Penguins: Which generational talent gets our best defense, and which one do we hope and pray has an off night against our second unit?
As for Crosby, he’s cemented himself as one of the greatest captains in NHL history. Yes, Jonathan Toews will forever be known as the “best leader” his generation, mainly because he’s not even in the same conversation as Crosby on a production level and has to have some attribute to use in the debate. But as he showed in each round – in Game 7s, in critical moments like Game 5 against the Predators – a motivated Sidney Crosby is a top-five all-time player. If he’s healthy, the Penguins have a shot at the Cup for the foreseeable future.
The Penguins don’t win without Marc-Andre Fleury’s two-and-a-half rounds. Especially the Washington Capitals’ series. They all said it after the Stanley Cup win, and it wasn’t hyperbole.
But all that ultimately means is that they need a veteran insurance policy if Murray goes down again next postseason, rather than Tristan Jarry, who still sounds like a character from a YA fantasy novel.
Because if Murray’s healthy … well, check the figures: Two Stanley Cups in his first two seasons. If he plays as long as, say, Tom Barrasso did, he’ll have, by our calculations, 19 Stanley Cup rings. (Hashtag one for the pinkie toe.)
OK, seriously: For all the talk of wonky glove side goals and the like, Murray has a career .928 save percentage and a 1.95 GAA in 32 playoff games, winning 22 of them. That includes four shutouts, three of them posted this season, including his best performance in the postseason in Game 6 against Nashville.
He’s unflappable and dependable, and unlike Corey Crawford (for example) can be the best player on the ice in multiple games in a series. And he’s 22.
The Cap Space
The Penguins are roughly $13 million under the cap at the moment, with Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey all UFA; while Conor Sheary, Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz are all RFA.
That’s the cap situation without Marc-Andre Fleury’s $5.75 million coming off the books, which it will thanks to the Vegas Golden Knights.
(An aside: The idea that Fleury did the Penguins a solid by waiving his NMC for the expansion draft at the trade deadline, so GM Jim Rutherford wouldn’t trade him, is one way of looking at it. The other way is that Rutherford leveraged that NMC waiving with the threat of a trade, which is unfeeling but great business.)
What that space buys you is another solid, puck-moving defenseman to help Kris Letang out (or, if he’s not healthy, move up the depth chart).
The Penguins were linked to Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets last season, and would be wise to revisit that. He makes slightly above $2.8 million next season before going RFA. They can afford him now, and going forward if they’re smart about it.
But most of all, regarding the Penguins’ cap: Cheap Labor.
Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney all make less than $735,000 against the cap next season. When you have 44 percent of your space tied up in Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang, that’s an incredible cap advantage for 2017-18.
“We were fortunate. We had some guys that were being developed,” said GM Jim Rutherford.
It’s been well-chronicled that many of the Penguins have played well over 200 games in the last year. And yet they skated the Predators off the ice in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final …
The good news for the Penguins is bad news for the rest of us: No Olympics or World Cup. Crosby, Malkin, Murray and others that would have left for the Games won’t have that extra mileage this season, nor will the schedule be as condensed in the NHL. That helps.
As we’ve seen with the Blackhawks, long playoff runs catch up with you. While the Penguins played through it to win this season, this wear and tear might be their greatest obstacle to three in a row.
The Leafs Haven’t Hatched Yet
It’s pretty clear that the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to be a formidable Cup contender, with Auston Matthews as their leader and with some stud on defense they’ve yet to add. (Drew Doughty goes UFA in 2019, FYI.)
But they’re not there yet, which means the East is still the East. Can the Penguins advance past:
– A Tampa Bay Lightning team, whose composition next season is still unknown?
– Old war horses in the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers?
– Carey Price?
– Whatever the Flyers are doing?
– John Tortorella and a team they always beat?
– Guy Boucher’s diminishing returns?
– Jack Eichel?
– The Florida Panthers, who aren’t quite ripe yet?
– The Carolina Hurricanes, and ditto?
– John Tavares?
– The empty carcasses of the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings?
– A quivering bowl of red, white and blue gelatin?
The answer is, “of course they can.” At least next season, as they shoot for three.
They Know How To Win
This might sound more nebulous than it is, but seriously: If coffee for closers, the Penguins are Starbucks.
“We had a group of guys who knew how to win,” said Rutherford. “We went into to Washington for that Game 7, those guys knew how to win that kind of game. Had to come home and play Ottawa, and we knew how to win that game. We never panicked. And then again in this series [against Nashville].”
When you watch teams like Washington and St. Louis flail about with great talent and a lack of results, you understand there’s an intangible difference between them and the teams that close the deal. There was a poise and confidence about the Penguins, no matter the situation, that was undeniable. That someone would make a play. That adversity wouldn’t rattle them. It wasn’t some B.S. supernatural sports belief in destiny; it was a self-assurance that they got this.
Even for the most focused champions in hockey, three in a row is hard to envision. With the restrictions on spending. With 31 teams. At time when defenses and goaltenders are better than they’ve ever been. (But yeah, leave Malkin off the top 100 in favor of a guy from the 1920s.)
But a Pittsburgh three-peat isn’t impossible, for the reasons we’ve spelled out here.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have an actual dynasty, instead of being all “hey, close enough” in the cap era?
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