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Joe Starkey

Starkey: Is Penguins' window shut?

| Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, 4:24 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the ice during a game with the Stars Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015 at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the ice during a game with the Stars Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015 at Consol Energy Center.

I heard somebody say we're deluding ourselves if we believe the Penguins need only a tweak — or one major move — to reclaim Stanley Cup-contender status.

It's over, the person said. The Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era produced one Cup and will produce no more. Not this year or next year or the year after that. Open your eyes and look at the window. It's glued shut.

You know what? The man made a compelling case. It's difficult to picture this team making a playoff run. It's nearly impossible to picture it hoisting the Cup.

The Penguins' new reality is what Mike Babcock described in his latter days coaching the Detroit Red Wings.

“We're a team that used to battle to win the Stanley Cup,” Babcock said. “Now we battle to get into the playoffs.”

Still, I cannot fully buy into the idea that the Crosby-Malkin Penguins will fade into oblivion. Maybe I'm naive, but I cannot discount the possibility of this group morphing into a Steelers-like “team nobody wants to play” as the playoffs near, even if it's a team everybody wants to play at the moment. The NHL has become parity in motion. There is no juggernaut in the East. Things change quickly.

It's possible, maybe probable, that Crosby never will reclaim the title of Best Player in the World. But is he done as an elite player at 28? That's hard to believe. Malkin, at 29, remains a force.

Is Kris Letang, 28, finished as a dynamic defenseman?

Again, hard to believe, although finding the combination to unlock Crosby and Letang has to be new coach Mike Sullivan's No. 1 mission. Nearly a quarter of the team's payroll is tied up in those two players.

Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist represented another $10 million chunk of underachieving payroll going into Saturday's game. Sullivan might have hit on something when he gave Kessel his own line. Maybe Kessel needs to create the dynamic instead of deferring to a centerman.

The acquisition of Trevor Daley should help, as should the infusion of youthful energy. But it starts at the top. Crosby is the key to everything.

I sometimes wonder if Sid is a prisoner of his amazing past. I wonder if his inability to be the Sidney Crosby of, say, 2010 — pre-brain injury — weighs him down. And if he's on a downer, how can that not spread?

What would be wrong with Sid mimicking the transformation of his childhood idol, Steve Yzerman? Instead of shooting for more 100-point seasons at any cost, Yzerman, as he approached 30, took Scotty Bowman's directive and focused on rounding out his game and becoming the consummate leader.

Sergei Fedorov soared past Yzerman as Detroit's dominant scorer. Sid might have to accept the fact Malkin, at the moment, is that guy on this team. And perhaps one act of leadership could be ceding the right half-boards to Malkin on the power play.

General manager Jim Rutherford told 93.7 The Fan that the team “expects more” from Crosby. But he also made it sound as if Crosby was a victim of the team's horrible power play rather than a cause.

“Part of the reason his production has dropped off is the power play hasn't worked the way it should,” Rutherford said. “If our power play was working just at an average pace, he would have more points, the team would have more points, and we wouldn't be in the hole we're in.”

OK, so why hasn't the power play sunk Malkin's point total to Lee Stempniak-levels? The Penguins' power play has been painfully predictable for too long. Malkin needs to be on the right side, where he has scored six goals. Crosby needs to be on the goal line. Sullivan has made the power play his baby. He better figure it out.

Of the team overall, Rutherford said, “I believe we have enough players here, enough good players, that we can contend.”

Maybe he's delusional. Maybe I am, too. But I'm not ready to say the window's shut.

Not glued shut, anyway.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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