Penguins Face Intense Stanley Cup Competition
Oddsmakers list the Penguins as favourites for 2018 Stanley Cup futures, ahead of rivals like the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens. History suggests that Pittsburgh will fall short, but the franchise has the personnel needed to rule the NHL for the third straight season.
Death Of NHL Dynasties
NHL dynasties formed about once per decade from the 1940s to the 1980s. The Toronto Maple Leafs ruled the late 1940s and the 1960s while the Canadiens dominated the 1950s and the 1970s. Toronto earned three consecutive Stanley Cups during those decades, while Montreal won five in a row during the 50s and four straight during the 70s.
The last true dynasty was the New York Islanders, pulling off four consecutive championships between 1980-1983. During the 35 years that passed since the Islanders last ring, no team has been able to win three straight. Gretzky’s Oilers, Lemieux’s Penguins and Yzerman’s Red Wings – none of these outstanding teams were able to finish a three-peat.
Between 1976 and 1990, Montreal, the Islanders and Edmonton won 13 Stanley Cups. Since 1991, 13 different NHL teams won a championship, signalling an era of improved parity among competing franchises. Winning three in a row has never been tougher than the current era.
NHL Grind Takes A Toll
Over the past two years, the Pittsburgh Penguins played a total of 213 NHL hockey games, not including the preseason. To win a third consecutive cup, the Penguins will need to play another 100-105 games, assuming they don’t sweep their way through the playoffs. Playing deep into the NHL playoffs also reduces the amount of recovery time during the offseason. After eight months of peak performance, even the most fit hockey players need time to recharge.
Teams which bow out of the playoffs earlier enjoy a slight advantage in terms of rest, compared to conference or Stanley Cup finalists. This makes the next season a bit less of a grind, allowing for better overall health and energy reserves compared to teams which play deep into May or June.
The greatest threat to any dynasty is injury, the odds of which increase when NHLers average more than 100+ games for consecutive seasons. Last year, Kris Letang was unable to join the Penguins for their Stanley Cup run, which nearly cost the Penguins during their matchup with the Capitals and the Senators. Both series extended to game seven, and the Pens barely escaped to the next round, partly due to diminished depth on defense. Fortunate for Pittsburgh, they have the best player in the world, who atones for most lineup deficiencies.
Penguins Earn Rare Opportunity
The Pittsburgh Penguins are unique among current NHL teams, situated perfectly for another long season. No other team enjoys as much depth down the middle of the ice. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both have Conn Smythe Trophies under their belt. Kris Letang’s still an elite defenseman, but the Pens also scored Justin Schultz for next-to-nothing, providing defensive scoring depth. When Letang went down for the season, the Pens front office didn’t hesitate, grabbing Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit to bolster the backline.
Marc-Andre Fleury helped the team to their first cup win of the millennium, but the goaltender grew less consistent as years passed. Enter Matt Murray, selected in the third round of the draft in 2012. This young goaltender ended up playing like Ken Dryden, winning two rings before he completed his rookie season. There isn’t an NHL franchise that’s been as lucky as Pittsburgh when it comes to goaltending.
The front office also acquired scoring depth on the cheap, snagging Phil Kessel from a disgruntled Maple Leafs team. Conor Sheary, Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel round out a surprisingly deep group of wingers, obscured by the brilliance of Crosby and Malkin. Accumulating this type of talent during the salary cap era shouldn’t go unnoticed, especially as rivals like the Blackhawks and Capitals shed talent to fit their payroll under the cap.
Rivals Grow Stronger Every Season
Last year, the Penguins were seriously challenged by the Capitals and the Senators – the former an expected matchup between powerhouses, the latter a surprise Cinderella team buoyed by outstanding team defense.
This year, the Tampa Bay Lightning appear ready to challenge the status quo, along with the rapidly rising Toronto Maple Leafs. These challengers enjoy a wealth of young, elite talent, able to keep up with the Penguins. The Rangers have Lundqvist and improved their defense, making them a superb dark horse candidate to win an eastern conference crown. Washington still has one of the deepest teams in the league despite a tough offseason. Any one of these four teams could upset the Penguins in a seven-game series.
In the western conference, the Edmonton Oilers and Connor McDavid are in the process of reaching their prime, with the potential to grow into an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. Chicago still has a Stanley Cup winning lineup, Nashville remains dangerous and the Dallas Stars could grow into best team in the west after winning the offseason.
There isn’t a team better prepared than the Penguins to take on all these challengers. However, history suggests that a squad other than Pittsburgh will rise to win the Stanley Cup.
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