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Paul Zeise: This could be the end of an era for Penguins, but does it need to be?

Paul Zeise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Hockey

The Penguins' first-round playoff loss to the Rangers is the fourth consecutive early exit for the team. It is their third straight first-round loss, and it was a series they all but had won and blew. The Penguins led 3-1 in the series, they had a two-goal lead in Games 5 and 6 and lost, and then in Game 7 entered the third period with a 3-2 lead and couldn't hold it.

There are many who believe it could be the end of the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang era.

And it is not because Crosby is going anywhere or has declined to the point where he can't lead a team to a championship, although Father Time is catching up to him a bit. Crosby is going to retire a Penguin, but that won't happen any time soon as he seems destined to play into his 40s. And what a glorious ride he has led the Penguins on — 16 consecutive playoff seasons, three Stanley Cups, four Eastern Conference finals.

The Penguins have been the gold standard for the NHL over the past decade and half, but it seems like that run is over now and it is time to retool.

There is a new ownership group and it seems eager to put its own front office in place. That probably means the end for Brian Burke as team president and perhaps even the end of Ron Hextall's run as general manager. Those two things may not happen, but it sure seems like they are on the table.

Mike Sullivan appears to be safe for now, but in the volatile world of hockey coaching, who knows? We have seen plenty of Stanley Cup-winning coaches fired in the past, and while Sullivan is one of the best in the business, he hasn't had his magic touch in the last four playoff series.

Malkin, Letang and Bryan Rust are all probably going to be priced out of town, as all three are free agents and will come with a hefty price tag. Maybe one of them takes a hometown discount to stay with the Penguins, but that seems like a long shot. They have all won Stanley Cups, so there is no need for them to go championship hunting and take lesser deals, which is why I expect at least two of them to be gone.

The Penguins also have to make decisions about Rickard Rakell, Danton Heinen, Evan Rodrigues, Casey DeSmith, Brian Boyle and Kaspari Kapanen. I am not sure if any of those players can't easily be replaced, and a few of them may have played well enough to command more than the Penguins will pay.

 

About the only thing certain is whatever the Penguins look like next year, they will still be built around Crosby and Tristan Jarry will be their starting goalie. There are a few other key pieces, like Jake Guentzel, who are signed and thus will be back, but for the most part, there will be a retooling to some degree.

All of that being said, I am not sure this is the way the Penguins need to go. They probably weren't good enough to win the Stanley Cup this year, but the way they played in Games 3 and 4, before Crosby got injured, suggested to me they aren't that far away. Injuries are never an excuse but sometimes a reason, and I think anyone who watched that series came away thinking that had Jarry — or even DeSmith — played and Crosby didn't get knocked out for a game with a cheap shot, the Penguins would have won.

I only say this to suggest it doesn't have to be the end of the era that everyone is predicting. I still think Letang is one of the best defensemen in the NHL, and the Penguins with him, Crosby and Guentzel are going to be a handful regardless of the supporting cast. I do think they should move on from Malkin and sign Rust, and if they do that, they will have some extra cap space available to get a young, dynamic wing or third- or fourth-line player that can score goals.

And if they come back with Crosby, Rust, Letang, Guentzel and even Jarry, they will be a playoff team. From that point, they are maybe only one or two key acquisitions away from being contenders again. I know we have all used the phrase the "window is closed" ... but is it? And why does it have to be?

The Penguins still have Crosby, and as long as Crosby is healthy he is one of the best players in the world. In the first four games of this series, he was the best player in the world. As long as he is the captain of the team, they should keep building a team every year that has a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

This was a disappointing loss, and there seems to be a lot of change in the air. But the Penguins can't be emotional and make a reactionary decision. I think if the front office —whoever is in it — sits and think about it long and hard, they will come to the conclusion that some change is needed.

But blowing it completely up doesn't make much sense.

(c)2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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