It’s been pretty frustrating watching the Penguins this year. Sure, there have been some high spells like their dominant West Coast trip in October or their 8 game winning streak to end 2018 and the first game of 2019. But the season overall has more emblematic of the recent grinding stretch of play fans have endured.
Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have been disjointed and disinterested for long stretches of the season. Matt Murray and Patric Hornqvist have been injured for chunks of the season. Some overly optimistic fans are waiting for Justin Schultz to come back very soon and solidify a defense corps that has been very leaky all season. I like Schultz a lot, but one man is not going to cure these ills.
But one man has made sure that the product you see on the ice is, in theory, going to be around for the next two seasons after this. Jim Rutherford has been on a quest for term this year in his trades. By picking up Tanner Pearson ($3.75M through 2020-21 season) and recently Nick Bjugstad ($4.1M through 2020-21 season), Rutherford has a whopping 10 forwards, 5 defensemen, and both goalies under contract next year already. And with restricted free agent forwards like Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger, plus RFA defensemen Jusso Riikola and Marcus Pettersson, Jim Rutherford (in theory) has next year’s team already set.
The problem is that with those 17 players mentioned above, the Penguins 2019-20 cap hit already stands at $78.8M. It is expected that the cap will rise to around $83M next year, so it is going to be tight, but doable, to squeeze those four guys in under the cap.
But then what are you left with?
Only the most diehard supporter would say the Penguins are on the shortlist to win the Cup this year. Within the Eastern Conference alone, Tampa Bay is the clear favorite to win the whole thing, with Toronto and Boston also looking strong. The Pens are in the next tier with the Capitals, who have been going through their post-Cup malaise all year, and the surprising Islanders. In the West, both Nashville and Winnipeg are better looking teams to win the Cup at this point, with Calgary a dark horse, as well. Just about every one of these teams either has cap space and/or more interesting assets to trade than the Penguins at the upcoming deadline to further solidify their Cup runs.
So not only is this current edition of the Penguins not good enough to win the Cup this year, but then next year they’re all coming back a year older. I haven’t checked lately, but I believe Father Time is still undefeated. At some point, Sidney Crosby is going to slow down. Considering that he’s been willing this team to win for most of the year on sheer personal brilliance, when he loses his magic this team will really be in trouble.
Now we all know that Jim Rutherford can’t say no to a good trade, so there’s virtually no way that this exact grouping of players will be on the ice next year (or even past this year’s February 25th trade deadline). But the Penguins have been handing out draft picks like candy on Halloween in their quest to keep the Cup contention window propped open. The stateside farm lacks any impact talent (top-6 forwards, top-4 defensemen) that can step in to the mix in the next year or two. It’s vital that Rutherford hangs on to the Penguins’ 1st round pick this year; the last 1st round selection they’ve made was in 2014 on Kasperi Kapanen.
The well has run dry and needs to find another source of water. Is this the year that Ron Cook’s annual summer prognostication that the Penguins trade Phil Kessel ? Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. His $6.8M cap hit would provide a little wiggle room, but his production would leave, too. In any potential trade, the Pens would have to receive a young producing player and picks in return.
What you’re seeing with the Blackhawks and Kings this year is a vision of the Penguins’ future, probably in the 2020-21 season. When Patric Hornqvist falls off the cliff, it will be sudden and unexpected for many fans. Jack Johnson is…Jack Johnson. Crosby, Malkin, and Letang will all be in their 33-34 age seasons. It will be ugly. The fans should reflect warmly on the three Cups earned during this era, especially the difficult feat of back-to-back ones, but that’s not the fickle nature of fandom.
Rutherford is trying to give one more happy memory for the fans, but his Gambler’s Fallacy-esque nature of assembling the team is coming back to bite him. Each trade of late involves him trying to correct a mistake from a previous trade it seems. At some point, he needs to admit that the race is lost and it’s time to start building for the future.