Damien Cox: Rebuilding is a point of contention for NHL’s crumbling powerhouses
|Toronto Star 15 Nov 2018 at 21:55|
Chicago, too, seems to have failed to detect when the winning was over and the time was ripe to begin replacing the parts that had captured three championships.
It’s a hard point in time to notice, and acknowledge. Teams, anxious not to face a future with more losses than wins and perhaps unhappy customers, prefer to live in denial. Your Toronto Blue Jays would be one such team.
The Wings, Kings and Hawks, three of the NHL’s powerhouse teams of the past decade, all either didn’t see what was coming or preferred not to look. You could argue L.A. and Chicago are still putting off the inevitable.
The question now is whether the Pittsburgh Penguins will avoid that scenario.
As we’ve seen this week, the Pens are still very much intent on going for another Stanley Cup. General manager Jim Rutherford, 69, was rewarded with a new three-year deal, and his contract was announced simultaneously as he made a deal with the floundering Kings, sending speedy winger Carl Hagelin to L.A. and receiving struggling winger Tanner Pearson in return.
Pearson’s only 26, so he’s still theoretically moving into his prime. Maybe he’ll recapture his scoring touch as others have in Pittsburgh. He’s also got two years left on his deal at $3.75 million per (all dollars U.S.), compared to Hagelin, who is up this summer. So by making this move, Rutherford was committing even more to the win-more-now philosophy.
The Pens could very well win the Cup this season as currently constituted, although they’ve played badly so far. After winning back-to-back championships, they were bounced in the second round last spring by Washington, and the Capitals went on to win it all. So it’s not like Rutherford’s team can be written off yet.
The trick, however, will be deciding when that is the case. At that point, will Pittsburgh be willing to step back, rearm and avoid the fate of Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago?
The peerless Sidney Crosby is 31 years of age. He has six years left on a deal that comes with an $8.7-million cap hit and makes him the most underpaid superstar in professional sports. If not for Crosby’s decision to take that deal back in 2012, Pittsburgh’s competitive situation would be far more compromised today. When you consider the bidding on Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine next summer will probably begin at $13 million per season, it’s clear how much money Crosby has sacrificed. At least he got rings out of it.
There is no obvious sign No. 87 is in decline. But it’s going to happen and will probably begin within the next five years, even with his extraordinary work ethic.
Evgeni Malkin is 32, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang are 31. That’s the Pittsburgh core, all past their 31st birthdays. Goalie Matt Murray is the outlier among the key Pittsburgh players at just 24.
The Penguins only have one player in their lineup from the last five NHL drafts. The team’s last first-round selection, winger Kasperi Kapanen (2014), is playing for the Maple Leafs.
Obviously, Pittsburgh has gone all out to win with Crosby in his prime, and it has paid off handsomely. But it’s going to end, and probably within the next two seasons. That is, unless Rutherford and ownership are willing to make some aggressive, cold-blooded and unpopular decisions soon. Like at the end of this season.
Let’s say Pittsburgh goes all out to win the 2019 Cup. By adding Pearson, it certainly appears that’s what the Pens are trying to do. No problem. They may even win it.
Win or lose, however, next summer is when Pittsburgh needs to start dismantling the current team and bringing in new young talent. That’s if, of course, they want to avoid the fate of the Wings, Kings and Hawks.
It won’t be easy. It’s heartbreaking. Heck, the Kings hockey office, after signing Ilya Kovalchuk last summer, can’t bring itself to acknowledge what the rest of the league sees. Drew Doughty re-signed because he was told the team still intended to compete, and now he’s going to be stuck with a mediocre to bad team for a while.
No team wants to start chopping and replanting before it is absolutely forced to. Well, no team except the New England Patriots. Ever since they started winning Super Bowls they’ve constantly moved out older players and brought it either younger ones or former stars on short-term deals. At 41, quarterback Tom Brady is literally the last man standing, but the Patriots are still in the mix 16 years after winning their first championship, and have never gone through a period of losing.
Football, with non-guaranteed contracts, has always been able to be more cut-throat when it comes to roster decisions. Hockey, by contrast, has been at the other extreme, with teams traditionally unwilling to cut bait on beloved stars. The result is that they eventually become unproductive assets with little or no market value.
The Penguins could be hockey’s exception. Try to win one more this year, then keep Crosby, move everyone else (not easy with no-movement clauses) and reconstitute the team with younger players and high picks. Instead of doing a slow fade, the Pens could quickly become a contender again with a totally different look.
There’s no evidence the Penguins will actually do this. They probably won’t. But if they don’t, they’ll soon be where the Wings, Kings and Hawks are now, destined to be on the outside looking in for a long time.