Penguins poised for repeat, but many questions still remain

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[June 17, 2016]  By Alan Robinson, The Sports Xchange
 
 PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' core players -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang -- were in the early 20s when the team last won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Everyone in the organization was certain more Cups would quickly follow.

They didn't.

The Penguins waited through seven years, two coaching changes, a lengthy concussion-related layoff by Crosby, rumors of a possible franchise sale and a complete overhaul of the game they play to return to the Stanley Cup finals and win them again -- and with the same core players.

What the organization wants to do now is not wait nearly so long to return again, especially now that Crosby, Malkin and Letang are nearing their 30s, and Fleury is already there.

"It's not easy," Crosby said. "You probably take it for granted a little bit (the first time). You don't think you do at the time, but it's not easy."

The Penguins are one of the few teams of recent vintage in major USA pro sports to win a title with a youngish roster, keep many of those players together during a lengthy absence from the league finals, then get back and win again.

And as their players packed their bags Thursday at Consol Energy Center and headed off to a summer shortened by the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup in 25 years, they realized most will be back next season, too. But that doesn't mean general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan don't have tough decisions to make.

The most compelling is whether to retain longtime franchise goalie Fleury, who won 35 games during yet another strong regular season only to lose his starting job to rookie Matt Murray during the playoffs because of a concussion. Murray responded with a Ken Dryden-like run to the Cup and, at 22, is nearly a decade younger than Fleury.

But while Fleury's salary cap hit is $5.75 million next season, he could be hard to deal -- not just for value, but for competitive reasons -- especially with an expansion draft upcoming after next season.

First, Fleury has a no-trade clause, which could severely restrict his maneuverability. Second, goaltending play can make or ruin a team's season, and the Penguins have only a month's worth of regular season play and two months of the playoffs by which to evaluate Murray for the long haul -- though his postseason work would suggest a long stay in the league as a No. 1 goalie.

"If it was a perfect world and he (Sullivan) and I were making a decision right now, we'd like to start the season with Fleury and Murray, but we'll have to see what the circumstances are and how we'll deal with them going forward," Rutherford said Thursday.

There has also been talk of the Penguins moving Malkin, the former NHL scoring champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, for a package of younger players. But Malkin disclosed Thursday he played throughout the playoffs -- getting six goals and 12 assists in 23 games -- with a "real serious" elbow injury that occurred March 11.

"I'll do an MRI (Friday) and we'll see," Malkin said.

"(He) played before most guys would have played," Rutherford said. "And made a contribution to the team. (It) just shows his character. It was pretty impressive."

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If Malkin requires surgery, Rutherford said, "it does take a little bit longer to heal."

Nick Bonino, who centered the No. 3 line (Carl Hagelin-Bonino-Phil Kessel) that was the Penguins' most productive throughout the playoffs, played the finals with an elbow infection that required significant doses of antibiotics for him just to play. The Penguins weighed whether to shut him down.

No Stanley Cup winner has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. For the Penguins to do so, they probably need their core guys to keep being their core guys, for Kessel to keep playing at his playoffs level and for their crew of young players (Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Brian Dumoulin, Murray, et al) to continue to progress and develop.

Of the 25 players who found ice time during the playoffs, all but six are in their 20s. The Penguins also have only three unrestricted free agents, a relatively low number for a Cup winner: fourth-line center Matt Cullen, who will be 40 next season; defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who is 32; and No. 3 goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who is 29.

Lovejoy would appear to be the most likely to return, and Cullen already has been invited back by Rutherford, who has won Cups with him in Carolina and Pittsburgh.

Now that the Penguins have established their modus operandi under Sullivan -- outskate teams with their speed, wear them down with their four lines, outwork them for the puck in both zones -- they'll likely go after more such young forwards and a puck-moving defenseman or two in the upcoming draft. They have five picks; none in the first round but two in the second.

A champion's chances of repeating often are determined as much by their opponents' play as their own. Just as they did in 2009, the Penguins finished behind the Capitals during the regular season -- Washington easily was the NHL's best team from October through March -- only to oust them in the second round of the playoffs.

The Capitals have a deep ground of points-producing forwards and seem certain to be an Eastern Conference contender again next season. So should the Florida Panthers, who were surprisingly ousted in the first round by the New York Islanders. And the Tampa Bay Lightning have been in the conference finals twice and the Cup finals once during the last two seasons.

Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, who've lifted the Cup twice as owners, also must decide if now is the right time to sell a very strong franchise -- the Penguins have sold out every home game since Crosby's second season -- that initially went on the block a year ago.

Rutherford, who is 67, also must decide if he'll return for a third full season in a job he admittedly took in 2014 for the short term and not the long.

"It's tracking that I'm coming back," he said.

He just hopes his team comes back this same way next season, too.

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