It’s a word that typically doesn’t enter the conversation when talking about someone in their late 20’s. People don’t start thinking about such terms until at least they approach 40, if not at all until retirement starts to appear closer than a speck in the distance. But when you’re talking about athletes, who routinely peak in their mid to late-20’s and are usually retired by their mid-30’s, it’s perfectly natural to at least start to consider it.
The cold, hard truth (whether a Penguins fan wants to admit it or not) is that the careers of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have not lived up to their reputations. Furthermore, it appears to me that both players are not only downsliding on their own personal trajectories, but one (or both) of them may require a scenery change in the not-too-distant future.
The early part of their careers held such promise. Even though Malkin was drafted in 2004, he didn’t debut until 2006, due to both the 2004-05 lockout and his transfer from Russia. By that time, Crosby had already suffered through a miserable 2005-06 season in which the Penguins finished with just 58 points. Crosby himself had a fantastic 102 point campaign; Malkin debuted with 85 points. They were to be this Penguin generation’s Lemieux and Jagr, with Crosby as Mario and Malkin filling the role of a moody Euro played by Jagr.
After some standard growing pains when a young team of stars has to learn how to win together, the Crosby-Malkin tandem made their presence felt in 2007-08 when they made the Stanley Cup Finals against the battle-hardened Detroit Red Wings. Although they fought gamely, they came up short against a team that was better. The next year, though, the two teams re-matched in the Stanley Cup Finals and this time the Penguins prevailed. Back-to-back Cup Finals? A fan could get used to this! In fact, though, fans started to expect it.
It became easy to explain away each subsequent failure to return to the Stanley Cup Finals:
- 2009-10 — The team was tired after back-to-back deep playoff runs plus Jaroslav Halak was a wall in goal
- 2010-11 — Crosby and Malkin were both out of the playoffs with injuries
- 2011-12 — The team lost their minds and composure against the Flyers, Fleury couldn’t stop a beach ball
- 2012-13 — Fleury again was awful, Penguins were completely embarassed by the Bruins
- 2013-14 — Defense was a little leaky and Henrik Lundquist was a force of nature for the Rangers
After last season’s playoff failure it has now been five seasons since the team was in the Cup Finals, which is a lifetime in hockey terms. Looking at each playoff exit in isolation, it’s understandable — can’t win ’em all. But taken as a whole, it speaks to the need to solve the larger problem of why the Penguins have fallen short. Both GM Ray Shero and Coach Dan Bylsma paid the price for these shortcomings last offseason, but is it time to examine whether the issue may be with the team’s dual stars?
The past five Stanley Cups have been raised twice each by the L.A. Kings and Chicago Blackhawks and once by the Boston Bruins. Although the Blackhawks have the star power of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, it’s safe to say that neither the Kings nor the Bruins can match the on-paper star wattage of the Penguins. But what all three of those teams had during their runs were teams that played a cohesive system, goalies that were stalwarts, and a deep cast of supporting players. The Penguins have been structured in such as way as to be very top-heavy. Each of those teams also have coaches that could easily be considered superior in quality to Dan Bylsma. But if you’re going to sign Crosby to a contract with a cap hit of $8.7M until 2025 and Malkin to a contract with a cap hit of $9.5M until 2022, they must be subject to the glare of scrutiny, as well.
Crosby’s career was a rocket blasting into space until January 1st, 2011. In the Winter Classic game, Crosby received the root concussion from a hit by the Capitals’ David Steckel. Just four days later, the Lightning’s Victor Hedman put him headfirst into the boards and exacerbated the situation. He would miss the remainder of the season. For the 2011-12 season, Crosby didn’t debut until mid-November, played a handful of games, then missed three more months with concussion after-effects. The 2012-13 season saw Crosby play well when the season started in late January, play continuously, miss the month of April but return for the playoffs. But during three prime, peak seasons from age 23 to 25, Crosby only played 99 games out of a possible 212 regular season games.
Crosby came back strong last season, won the Hart as the MVP and the Art Ross for scoring leader, but in the playoffs was entirely ineffectual. There were rumors of a wrist injury that were quasi-confirmed when he had surgery in the summer. This season, Crosby has simply not looked like himself at all. The finishing moves, the confidence, even the trademark hustle is just not at peak level — it’s as if he’s missing the extra gear.
Although Malkin doesn’t have quite as robust of an injury history as Crosby, his various knee and shoulder injuries have caused him to miss a multitude of games, too. Since his own Art Ross-winning season in 2011-12, Malkin has been just barely over a point-per-game player in those three seasons (173 points in 154 games, 1.12/game), a far cry from his 1.45 points/game in 2011-12.
This season’s edition of the Penguins started off like a house on fire, but a malaise settled over the team once the calendar flipped to 2015. The Pens sit in 5th in the Eastern Conference; teams like the Rangers and Canadians are discussed as the favorites to make the Cup Finals out of the East, while the Pens are barely an afterthought. And even if they do make the Cup Finals, the West is once again loaded with the Blues, Predators, and Blackhawks as the elite teams. Yes, the Penguins have done well against the Western Conference this year (16-6-4, as of this writing), but it’s hard to see the Pens being able to repeat that over a grueling seven game series.
The Penguins seemed destined to squander yet another season of two stars’ primes. General Manager Jim Rutherford does not strike me as a particularly patient man, nor as one who is unwilling to blow something up and start from scratch. During what will most likely be a long, sad summer, I foresee him making and taking calls on every player on the roster, including 87 and 71.
I truly and sincerely hope that I will be eating my words regarding this article come late June, but I doubt it. It is heading towards a 6th consecutive season without a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh. The talent on this team is too good to only win one Stanley Cup. Plenty of teams (Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks come to mind) have raised one Cup banner this century — are the Pens destined to join them as one-hit wonders?
Two stars are starting to dim. Perhaps it is better for all parties if new arrangements are made.