Pittsburgh Penguins (Getty Images)
SAN JOSE – It was a team that had one player who overcame thyroid cancer, another a stroke. A third player had to retire because of blood clots. It was a team of superstars and castoffs, one player who was run out of the so-called Center of the Hockey Universe. It was run by a guy who called himself a caretaker, then ended up remodeling the whole darn school. It was a team that was floundering until it fired its coach, then had to turn to 22-year-old kid with all of 13 games of NHL experience in the playoffs.
And now the Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup champions. So they know a little something about staring down adversity. And they also know a little something about forming habits. This is Pittsburgh’s fourth Cup in the past 25 years, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider that the Detroit Red Wings are the only other team to win as many Cups as Pittsburgh in that time frame.
In one of the most dominating team performances since the Colorado Avalanche swept the Stanley Cup final 20 years ago, the Penguins put a bow on their Stanley Cup season with a 3-1 win in Game 6 of the final. There was no dispute over which was the better team in the series. The superhuman goaltending of San Jose’s Martin Jones notwithstanding, it wasn’t even close. The Penguins confused, confounded and flustered the Sharks with their blinding speed and their quick-strike opportunism. They were a defensive juggernaut and a team that killed on the transition.
“I can’t be more proud of the way we came together as a team,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “That’s all I could think of when the guys were celebrating and raising the trophy was how this group of players has come together over the past four months to become one really good hockey team.”
So now we post the question we do every year at this time. Could the Penguins become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champion since the 1997 and ’98 Red Wings? Well, when you start with one of the best players – if not, the best player – in the world, you’re off to a roaring start. But consider that of the players who were on the roster for Game 6 of the final, the Penguins only have to either re-sign or replace Matt Cullen, Justin Schultz and Ben Lovejoy next season. And with all due respect to Messrs. Cullen, Schultz and Lovejoy, you’re looking at interchangeable parts there.
“I’m not a fortune teller,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, “but I know one thing. It will be a good team next year. We’ve got a team that doesn’t have to get broken up. This team can stay together next year.”
And that is exactly where the Penguins have it on other teams that have won Stanley Cups in the salary cap era. The Chicago Blackhawks have had to reinvent themselves more times than Madonna in order to toe the line on the salary cap and it has required GM Stan Bowman to gut and rebuild his roster several times. The two-time winning Los Angeles Kings have had to make some very difficult personnel decisions.
But the Penguins, who have exactly $38 million in salary devoted to five players, have just $56.3 million in salary commitments next season. And that could drop dramatically if they decide they can afford to part with longtime goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and his $5.75 million over each of the next three seasons. They might get next to nothing in return for him, unless you consider $5.75 million more in cap space each of the next three seasons as something, which it is.
With an outstanding coach in Mike Sullivan and a group of disciples from the Penguins minor league team that mirrors what Jon Cooper has done in Tampa, the future looks bright for the Penguins. Could it all change at the drop of a hat? Of course it could. Injuries to key players, unanticipated declines in careers, young players who don’t turn out to be quite as good as everyone thought, all those things could sabotage a team that has designs on being a dynasty.
“This window is still wide open here,” Rutherford said.