Penguins will have to buck NHL age trend to raise Stanley Cup again
Amidst swirling uncertainty about what his roster will look like in the fall, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has been steadfast in one belief in every public comment he’s made since his team was swept out of the first round of the playoffs earlier this month.
The team’s championship window, Rutherford insists, is not closed.
“Because I have such a belief in (Sidney Crosby), Matt Murray, our coach and a number of other people in that room that have done it before and know how to do it,” Rutherford said. “But we have to go about it the way we did when we won. We can’t go about it as individuals and not come together as a team.
“I believe we have the ability to do it. If it’s not the ability to do it with the exact same guys, we certainly have players that other teams want that we can make the changes and bring in different players and good players.”
For the Penguins core to win another championship, it first would have to stay intact, then buck age-curve trends that have existed in the NHL for decades.
By the start of next season, Evgeni Malkin will be 33. Crosby, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel will be 32.
By the time their core players reached that age, the vast majority of the NHL’s greatest teams over the past 50 years had long since put their parade days in the rearview mirror.
Most notably from a Penguins perspective, Mario Lemieux was 27 at the end of the team’s back-to-back championship run in 1992. That’s hardly the only piece of evidence that indicates winning the Stanley Cup is a young man’s endeavor.
• When Bobby Orr, the undisputed greatest defenseman in NHL history, won the last of his two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins in 1972, he was 24.
• When the Philadelphia Flyers won the second of their back-to-back championships in 1975, Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach were 25.
• When the Montreal Canadiens concluded a stretch of four straight titles in 1979, Guy Lafleur was 27.
• When the New York Islanders captured their fourth consecutive championship in 1983, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier were 26, and Denis Potvin was 29.
• When Wayne Gretzky won the Stanley Cup for fourth and final time with the Edmonton Oilers in 1988, he and Mark Messier were 27.
• More recently, when the Chicago Blackhawks won their third and final title this decade, Patrick Kane was 26, and Jonathan Toews was 27.
There are two reasons even an exhaustive list such as this shouldn’t leave the Penguins resigned to the fact that their championship era has come to an end.
First, they already bucked the trend once in 2017. On the night they raised the 35-pound silver trophy for the second consecutive season in Nashville, Malkin and Letang already had turned 30, and Crosby and Kessel were 29.
Second, there are more than a few examples of teams with a core of older veterans winning at least one last title for the road.
For instance, after taking back-to-back titles in 1997-98, the Detroit Red Wings went three seasons without a championship. In 2001-02, their top eight scorers in the regular season and No. 1 goalie were all 30 or older as they hoisted the Cup again.
Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov were holdovers from the 1998 club.
That could be the blueprint these aging Penguins try to follow.
“It’s a pretty fine line. That’s what I’ve learned over the years,” Crosby said. “It’s pretty small, the difference between winning and losing. You’ve got to find a way to overcome that and be on the winning side of it, but I definitely have confidence in the group of guys we have.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .