The New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers will soon take the podium for selection Nos. 1 and 2 in the NHL draft, surely sending Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko to either side of the Hudson River. The picks represent a rebirth for two typically proud franchises with one combined playoff berth the past two years.
As the sun dawns on those two Metropolitan Division basement dwellers, it burns brightly for the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders, who combined to take out the two Metro teams who hoarded the past three Stanley Cups, Pittsburgh and Washington, in Round 1 of the playoffs.
In the process, it felt like dusk arrived for two of the most consistently dominant teams of this era. The last time Sidney Crosby’s and Alex Ovechkin’s seasons both finished by the end of Round 1 was 2007, when Sid’s upstart Pens got nudged aside by the eventual-finalist Ottawa Senators in five games and Ovie’s Capitals hadn’t yet matured into a playoff squad at all.
Will we remember 2018-19 as the beginning of the end for two generational talents? Probably not from an individual perspective. Crosby posted 100 points in one of his best all-around seasons, while Ovechkin led the NHL in goals a record eighth time. But is it nothing but downhill now for their teams given the diminishing results? The Penguins won the Cup in 2017, got outmuscled by the Capitals in Round 2 last year and were swept by the Isles this year. The pattern looks alarming similar to that of the powerhouse that preceded them: the Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Cup in 2015, lost a seven-game first-round matchup in 2016, then got swept in Round 1 of the 2017 playoffs. They haven’t been back since.
Hawks GM Stan Bowman’s years of chasing championships with a top-heavy, star-laden roster netted Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015 but also depleted Chicago’s stash of prospects and picks. Once some of the heroes started aging out – Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook – the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews couldn’t carry a juggernaut anymore. The Hawks finished last and second-last in the Central the past two seasons. Under GM Jim Rutherford, the Pens have been built similarly. They’ve shipped away first-round pick after first-round pick. The cause was worthy, but the Penguins had to pay for it in the standings sooner or later. Jammed up against the cap, they have little money left to pursue major upgrades without trading away talent.
It’s too early to panic over the Capitals, but maybe they’re what Pittsburgh was a year ago. Maybe Washington will be the team swept in Round 1 next year – when Ovechkin is 34.
If the Pens and Caps are destined to follow Chicago’s path, maybe they should embrace that. The Hawks retained their 2017 first-round pick and used it on defenseman Henri Jokiharju. After selling at the 2018 trade deadline and acquiring a second first-rounder, they picked two more blueliners, Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin. They accepted a backward fate in the name of repairing their blueline to grow later. Bowman also gambled on a trade, sending Nick Schmaltz to Arizona for underachieving prospects Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini.
Both blossomed, especially Strome. Suddenly, the Hawks have viable young scoring depth plus defensive upgrades on the way. Because they were willing to step aside and swallow a couple playoff misses, they’re suddenly back on the upswing. They flirted with a post-season berth this year and, led by a new wave of stars like Alex DeBrincat, they have a chance for a second peak before Kane and Toews run out of relevant years.
It’s too early to ask the question of Washington – but might Pittsburgh consider the Chicago strategy now? If the Pens are willing to sell off a piece like Phil Kessel to score a first-round pick, it could cost them a playoff spot, but it ups the chances of Cup contention a few years from now. Isn’t that better than limping to another early-round exit when Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang only have so many good seasons left?
The Penguins’ storyline will be a crucial one to watch this summer. A new group of teams is ready to rule the Metro in the present, so the best way back to the top for a fallen champion may be to step aside, regroup and acquire some high-ceiling youth.