Sports

How Will the Pittsburgh Penguins End?

The modern NHL’s most absurd run of success is coming to a close—but these guys are still going after it.

Malkin crouches and screams in celebration on the ice, looking at his teammate Kasperi Kapanen whose back is turned, as a New York Ranger skates dejectedly in the background
Evgeni Malkin celebrates his game-winning goal against the New York Rangers in the third overtime in Game 1 of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A team has never distilled an entire era into one game better than the Pittsburgh Penguins did on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. Playing the New York Rangers on the first night of their 16th consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff run, the Penguins should’ve gotten sandblasted. They had lost eight of their past 12 games. Their starting goaltender, Tristan Jarry, was injured and didn’t play. His backup, Casey DeSmith, would leave with an injury much later, putting a third-stringer into the crease. One of their only forwards currently playing well, winger Rickard Rakell, also got hurt mid-game. The Rangers dominated early and went up 2–0. The Penguins, old and bad, had no juice. But then, the same three players who have saved the Penguins time and again for the better part of two decades did what they often do. Sidney Crosby, the most accomplished player of his generation, set up two goals with deft passes. Kris Letang, the anchor defenseman for this long run of postseason trips, played 46 minutes at 35 years old. And Evgeni Malkin, who was Crosby’s near-equal for most of this long run, put an end to the game in triple-overtime by redirecting a long shot past Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, who made 79 saves in a loss, in one of the longest games in NHL history.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The Penguins have had a revolving door of shortcomings since 2007, the third year of Crosby’s career and the first that all three played together full-time. But they have also had these three players as their core for a golden era. In their career span together, the Penguins have won five more regular-season games than anyone else in the NHL and nine more playoff games. The group has won three Stanley Cups together, tying the Penguins with the Chicago Blackhawks for the most since a 2004-05 ownership lockout canceled the season. That lockout marked the introduction of the NHL’s salary cap, which prevented any team from amassing a full-on dynasty. But the Penguins hold the clear best claim to “team of the era” status, and those three athletes—Crosby, Malkin, Letang—have been the foundation.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

One way or another, that foundation is about to crumble. At 34, Crosby is the junior statesman of the group. Malkin and Letang are both on expiring contracts, and every indication is that the Penguins have a lot of work to do to keep even one of them, let alone both, beyond this spring. Malkin isn’t nearly the player he once was but could still command a big salary. Letang is somehow as good as he’s ever been, meaning he’ll carry a big price tag and a lot of risk. The Penguins have other, younger free agents-to-be who might occupy their wallets. Crosby will be a Penguin for life, most people around Pittsburgh have always figured. But his partnership with Malkin and Letang is on borrowed time and cannot persist much longer, even if the Penguins surprise everyone by conjuring up a way to keep all three next year. Their time together will end, and at some point not long after that, so will the Penguins’ reliability.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

That made Game 1 a special event. Crosby, Malkin, and Letang have played bigger games. They’ve even played bigger triple-overtime games. (In the 2008 Final, they won in three OTs in Detroit to stave off elimination, before the Red Wings won the Cup a few days later.) But for as long as Pittsburgh’s 2022 playoff run lasts, it presents an opportunity to savor: the chance to watch three Hall of Famers who only know collaboration with one another, with the knowledge that you’re running out of time to watch them play together for much longer.

Advertisement
Advertisement

There is no complaining. The Penguins are one of the most charmed franchises in sports. They were horrendous in the mid-1980s, and they either tanked well enough or got lucky enough to draft Mario Lemieux, a Quebecois center who became one of the five best players ever and then decided to bail the team out of dire financial straits by becoming a player-owner. A few years later, Czech winger Jaromír Jágr fell into their laps when the few teams drafting ahead of them didn’t take him. Lemieux and Jágr won back-to-back Cups in the early ‘90s. By the early 2000s, the Penguins were terrible again. In 2003, they used the first overall pick on Marc-André Fleury, the goalie who backstopped the Penguins to another Cup in 2009 and helped out in two more, in 2016 and ’17. In 2004, when the Washington Capitals took one of the best goal scorers ever, Alex Ovechkin, first overall, the Penguins were lucky enough that Malkin, a Russian megastar in his own right, was still there at No. 2. And then they got even luckier, as the lockout-canceled season gave them great lottery odds for the 2005 draft. The ping-pong balls bounced right, Crosby became a Penguin and exceeded absurd expectations, and the team parlayed its momentum into getting Pennsylvania to buy them a new arena under threat of relocation.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Everything ends, though. The Penguins have had a long list of coaches and general managers during the Crosby, Letang, and Malkin run. But they enjoyed quite a bit of organizational stability at the top, and that has crashed down rapidly in the past year. Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle sold out to Boston Red Sox and Liverpool F.C. owners Fenway Sports Group in 2021. Team president David Morehouse, who’d been in his job since 2007, stepped down last week, a few months after a sellout streak that dated to 2007 (an entire arena ago) ended. The club’s new administration has no reason to be sentimental about Malkin and Letang.

Whether the Penguins as we know them come apart in a few weeks or another two or three years almost feels immaterial. The Penguins without any of these three players will be unrecognizable from the team that has topped the post-lockout NHL. Crosby and Malkin aren’t the best forward duo in the NHL anymore—that’s the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl—but they are still engines that make a playoff team go. Letang is still a workhorse and set a career high with 68 points this year.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

What comes next might be ugly. It will at least be a sobering reminder that sports aren’t as easy as the Penguins have made it look for a while. The horror story the Penguins will try to avoid is that of the Red Wings, whom they lost to in 2008 and beat in 2009 to win this trio’s first Cup. The Red Wings had two premier forwards, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and one of the two best defensemen ever, Nicklas Lidstrom. They got old. Lidstrom retired. Datsyuk and Zetterberg hung on in reduced capacities for a few seasons. Datsyuk eventually went home to play in Russia. The Red Wings didn’t have a stable of young talent waiting, and they’d spent a lot of salary cap space on their aging stars. Next spring will mark 10 years since their last playoff series win. They haven’t even played in the tournament for the past six. Anything before 2005 is an apples-to-oranges comparison because of the salary cap’s establishment, but the best teams of most eras spend some time in the wilderness on the way down. The Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders did, too, after long stretches of brilliance in the ’80s.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

For years, the Penguins have been near or directly at the bottom of analysts’ rankings of NHL farm systems. They have frequently traded away prospects for players who could help them win more immediately—a smart strategy, based around the Penguins’ knowledge that when you have Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, there is nothing to do but max out and try to win more rings. But the strategy is going to come home to roost, because everything does. They have only made nine first-round draft picks since they landed Crosby, having traded away the rest. When they have made their picks, they have been low ones, because the Penguins are too good to draft early. The cupboard of young talent is as close to bare as it could be for an NHL team. Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are the only thing separating this team from an abyss.

Advertisement

There are a few ways it might all go, but all of them include the Penguins ceasing to be the most consistent team in the league. The franchise got its money’s worth, though, as did those of us who care about it. The Penguins’ success with these three players is now old enough to get a driver’s license. It has facilitated a youth hockey enrollment boom in Pittsburgh and given a city with a chip on its shoulder something to holler about forever. The 2022 playoffs are probably a last hurrah for that iteration of the Penguins. That makes these next games worth appreciating if you’re a fan—and worth tolerating if you’re not, given that your time to shine is coming soon.

Crosby, Malkin, and Letang may or may not have one last rabbit in their hats. The exact shape of the end of their time together remains to be seen, and their performances on Tuesday were not indicative of players ready to go quietly. The only reason to know the end is coming is that it always does. And once it has, the Penguins can do what they always do: Prepare for the universe to gift them another all-time franchise savior, likely not later than 2028.

Advertisement