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Penguins must go backward to go forward – just like the Blackhawks have

After being swept in Round 1, the Penguins face some difficult decisions. Are they willing to get younger – and weaker – in the short term if it elevates their ceiling a couple seasons from now?

The Pittsburgh Penguins fought off the aging process for as long as they could, but this highly successful incarnation of the franchise might finally be decaying.

It arguably started last year, when the Penguins fell in the second round of the playoffs to the team they used to own, the Washington Capitals. It was an obvious regression after consecutive Stanley Cups, but it didn’t necessarily signal the downfall of an empire. The Penguins still had their superstar core, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They had ascending goal-scorer Jake Guentzel, a do-it-all blueliner in Kris Letang and a talented if inconsistent netminder in Matt Murray. The pieces might have been in place to sustain the team’s dominance. At least, that was the glass-half-full idea, one I admittedly endorsed after their exit a year ago.

If we squinted closer, though, we understood that GM Jim Rutherford had very little cap space with which to work last summer. His biggest move was the widely criticized Jack Johnson signing. On paper, the team really didn't improve, and there wasn't significant help coming from within. Because they surrendered futures in the name of Cup chases, the Pens didn’t pick in the first round of the 2018 draft. Or the 2017 draft. Or 2016. Or 2015. And they traded away Kasperi Kapanen, the player they picked in 2014’s first round. As I’ve said many times before, all that was 100 percent worth it. The franchise landed two championships. Rutherford absolutely did the right thing. You keep taking your shots while you have Crosby and Malkin in their primes.

We always knew how the story would end, of course. The top-heavy roster model takes you so far before collapsing under its own weight because so few high-impact youngsters arrive to support the stars and there isn’t sufficient cap space to bring in any top-end veterans. The Chicago Blackhawks previewed the Penguins' fate perfectly. Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2015, lost in seven games in 2016’s first round, got swept by the bottom-seed Nashville Predators in 2017's first round and missed the playoffs the next two seasons.

That’s a five-step map, and the Penguins just completed step three, by the looks of it, getting swept by the New York Islanders in Round 1. A closer look at the analytical numbers suggests the Pens did a good job generating shot attempts only to be thwarted by hot goaltender Robin Lehner, but there’s no denying Pittsburgh had more holes than a Connect Four grid on defense. The Pens held a clear advantage in shot attempts at 5-on-5, but scoring chances were even, and the Isles did a much better job creating high-danger shot attempts. Even though, playoffs aside, Crosby just finished one of the best seasons of his career, it’s apparent the star power isn’t enough to carry the Penguins anymore. This team just doesn’t have enough depth at forward or talent on the defensive side of the puck.

So what should we expect from the Penguins and, more specifically, Rutherford now? Speaking for a long time after the series-ending Game 4, Malkin expressed a desire not overhaul the team structure. But it’s possible the Penguins are best off making a few major moves in the name of going backward to go forward.

If the Penguins deny that their empire is crumbling and try to reload, it won’t be easy. Guentzel’s new contract kicks in for 2019-20, spiking his cap hit from $734,167 to $6 million, so the Penguins have virtually no cap space. The cap’s probable increase from $79.5 to $83 million should buy enough breathing room to re-sign RFAs Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger. That’s about it. Pittsburgh thus finds itself in a similar position to last summer, unable to add much in free agency, with the only path to cap space being a trade of a big-money player. If you execute such a deal – and, say, move Phil Kessel for a defenseman – is the tradeoff worth it? Does the team improve at all if it must sacrifice one excellent player for another?

The Penguins, then, might be smarter to continue along Chicago’s path, for better or worse. The Hawks got to rejoin the first round of the draft in 2017 after sitting it out for two years and scored a good young blueliner in Henri Jokiharju at 29th overall. The Pens will pick in Round 1 for the first time since 2014 and can add their first high-pedigree draftee since Kapanen. In 2017-18, Chicago bombed out of the playoffs, traded Ryan Hartman for a first-rounder at the deadline and picked twice in the first round. Missing the playoffs meant selecting in the top 10 of the draft for the first time since they nabbed Patrick Kane first overall in 2007, and the Hawks landed an A-grade prospect in puck-moving defenseman Adam Boqvist eighth overall. The second first-rounder scored them another defensemen, Nicolas Beaudin, 27th overall. In two drafts, Chicago rebuilt its defense pipeline.

Hawks GM Stan Bowman also understood the need to score some additional young NHL talent for his team. He turned one young, underachieving scoring forward into two, sending Nick Schmaltz to Arizona for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini. Strome in particular experienced the long-anticipated breakout and formed an excellent second line with Perlini and Alex DeBrincat. That trio’s ascension allowed Chicago to reunite its stars, Kane and Jonathan Toews, together on the first line. Both posted their best numbers in years.

So Chicago, in a matter of two years, has repaired or at least begun repairing two glaring problems: a weak D-corps and a lack of forward depth behind its stars. More importantly, the Blackhawks have done it quickly enough that their new generation of youngsters, led by DeBrincat, Strome and Boqvist, has a chance to peak before Kane and Toews stop playing good hockey. The Hawks’ pillars could experience a useful career renaissance as key contributors on a relatively young team. Chicago even flirted with a playoff berth this spring and, depending on what it does this summer, has a chance to climb back into the tournament by next year. The key was GM Stan Bowman’s willingness to go backward to go forward.

Now the Penguins have an opportunity to do the same thing. They can use this year’s first-round pick. They can seek young, controllable players in trades – which Rutherford already started doing by acquiring Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad from the Florida Panthers in February. Maybe, by trading someone like Kessel, they can land some futures in the form of picks and/or prospects, though it’s worth noting they’d need some co-operation from Kessel, whose contract carries a list of eight teams to which he’d accept a trade. Moving him for pieces that would help more in the future than the present would decrease Pittsburgh’s odds of making the playoffs next year. That would surely be a bitter pill for Crosby and Malkin to swallow, but it would increase the chances of Pittsburgh bouncing back toward real contention before Crosby and Malkin’s primes end.

By sacrificing two years, maybe even just one, the Pens have a better chance at winning another Cup rather than toiling in mediocrity – and can set up a succession plan for the years after Crosby and Malkin begin fading. The Hawks have DeBrincat, Strome and Boqvist to get excited about as the next generation. Whom does Pittsburgh have?

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