Welcome to Game 7 of the second-round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, where the winner gets a ticket to the Eastern Conference final and the loser gets a tumultuous off-season.
Should the Rangers lose tonight, their biggest decision will be whether or not to use their amnesty buyout on Brad Richards, a guy who has actually performed admirably for them and has played 43 playoff games for the Rangers over the past three seasons. But with six years left on his deal and the possibility of a cap-recapture penalty if he retires before the deal expires, the Rangers might not have a choice in the matter. And because the provision for amnesty buyouts expires this summer, it’s now or never for the Rangers.
For the Penguins, losing Game 7 has the potential for much more dire consequences. Should the Penguins blow a 3-1 series lead in which they were in complete control and go on to lose, you’d have to think that every facet of the organization and every player on the roster, top to bottom, will be re-evaluated.
If the Penguins lose Game 7 tonight, or if they fall in the Eastern Conference final, they’ll need to take a long and hard look at the way their team is structured. It’s becoming clearer that this team is built to be very good, but not great. It is not built to win a Stanley Cup in this era of hockey and one that does not respond well to the pressures and constraints of playoff hockey. Whether that’s on coach Dan Bylsma, GM Ray Shero or the star players – including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal – will have to be addressed.
Because as the Penguins are currently constituted, they run the risk of becoming just like the Chicago Black Hawks of the 1960s or the Boston Bruins of the 1970s – teams loaded with elite talent of whom much was expected and too little was delivered. Of course it’s much more difficult to win multiple Stanley Cups now than it was in that era, if someone told you after the Penguins won the Cup in 2009 that they would win only make it to the conference final once in the next five years, would you have believed him?
I once asked Phil Esposito why the Bruins didn’t win more Cups than the two they did with that powerful lineup and he bluntly said, “Because we partied too much.” Everyone did in the 1970s, but the difference between the Bruins and the Canadiens was that the Canadiens knew when to stop. The Bruins did not.
That hardly seems the case with the Penguins. If you’re going to draw a more relevant parallel, it would be with the Black Hawks, who won the Stanley Cup in 1961 and were never heard from again. That team, like the Penguins, had incredible top-end talent with the likes of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote and Glenn Hall (and later, Tony Esposito). But they didn’t have the depth to grind out wins in the playoffs and when their big guns got shut down, they didn’t have the secondary talent that the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs had.
You could say the Penguins have suffered from the same malaise. Crosby has exactly one goal in his past 17 playoff games. So when Bylsma puts Malkin with him, Neal looks lost out there and the chinks in the armor start to become more noticeable. Defenseman Matt Niskanen will likely have to go elsewhere in the off-season because the Penguins, who committed an enormous amount of money and term to Kris Letang, won’t be able to keep him. The Penguins have more than $29 million in cap space devoted to five forwards, have virtually no other forwards under contract for next season and already have more than $55 million in cap space committed for next season, when the cap is expected to be about $71 million.
It’s not the greatest recipe for moving forward. The Penguins have always been able to justify their moves by being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. If that’s the case, you can afford to keep pushing the tough decisions to the next season. But when you can’t get out of the second round in four of five years, that stops becoming a viable way to operate. And changes, big ones, will have to be made. The Penguins will have no other choice.