Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Creative Penguins built to win, and to last

Evgeni Malkin #71 and Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate with the Stanley Cup Trophy after defeating the Nashville Predators 2-0 in Game Six to win the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Despite back-to-back Stanley Cups, you cannot make the case that the Pittsburgh Penguins have built a roster that ranks with the best of all time in terms of talent.
The team that finished off the Nashville Predators on Sunday night is not, in the larger perspective, a great hockey team. In beating San Jose last year and the Preds this year — the West sure isn’t what it used to be — they didn’t have to be great.
But this much is also clear; Pittsburgh is a superb organization that ranks with the very best in hockey and right there with the finest ever put together.
Not a great team, then, but a great organization. It’s a fine distinction, but one that matters.
Now hold on, you might say. The Montreal Canadiens won four straight Cups from 1976 to 1979 with a lineup that included Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard, and you’re ranking those Habs with these Penguins?
Not in terms of roster quality. But in terms of organizational strength? Absolutely.
It’s a lot harder to build a champion in 2017 than it was in 1977, folks, and nearly impossible to do it two years in a row. Back then, it wasn’t easy, but player salaries were low, free agency was non-existent and total payroll was only really a consideration for incompetent, unpopular franchises such as the California Golden Seals and Kansas City Scouts of the hockey world. Moreover, you could pretty much retain your players as long as you wanted, even if they were lodged in the minors. The threat of losing players to the World Hockey Association lasted less than a decade.
So while you can’t put this year’s Pittsburgh roster alongside the ’79 Canadiens and compare them, the ingenuity and flexibility required to build these Penguins champions is much greater than what was needed to build those outstanding Montreal teams.
The Pens are now so respected in the sport that the struggling Buffalo Sabres have tabbed Pittsburgh executive Jason Botterill to rescue them from the doldrums. Rick Tocchet might get a new head coaching opportunity. Bill Guerin, Mark Recchi and amateur scout Randy Sexton have strong reputations.
Like the Detroit Red Wings spreading their expertise across the NHL (Steve Yzerman, Mike Babcock, Jim Nill, Todd McLellan), the Pens are doing the same. There’s Botterill off to Buffalo, and for several years now Ray Shero and Tom Fitzgerald have been busy rebuilding the New Jersey Devils and have the No. 1 pick in the draft this month.
Overall, then, there’s a recognition the Pens know what they’re doing, starting at the top where Mario Lemieux stays out of the limelight but keeps the organization focused on winning Cups as the primary objective. He got a new rink built and a high-end practice facility. Even when the Pens were very publicly for sale, it didn’t alter the hockey operation. What Shero helped rebuild out of the ashes of bankruptcy, Jim Rutherford has improved and refined.
Obviously, it helps to have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the foundation. That gives you a head start on most teams. Crosby is now indisputably the finest player in the sport, excelling at every element of the game and expressing the finest qualities Canada has to offer in a hockey player.
Malkin is only a half-step behind, although he carries much less weight as a public personality, at least in North America. The two have complemented each other over the years and stepped up their games when the other one wasn’t available.
Crosby is surely getting his due as one of the greatest players in NHL history, and the Pens seemed more focused now on making sure Malkin receives more credit than he has thus far received.
“Maybe we can re-vote and see if Malkin is in the top 100 now,” quipped Rutherford, referring to the fact the Russian centre was left off that prestigious mid-season list.
The Pittsburgh Penguins pose for a group photo with the Stanley Cup Trophy after they defeated the Nashville Predators 2-0 in Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

But while Crosby and Malkin lead the way, these Penguins are not defined as a team by skill, but by work ethic and dogged relentlessness. Players who don’t thrive in other cities thrive in Pittsburgh when they buy into the program. That list of players is long and includes Justin Schultz, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Ian Cole and Nick Bonino.
These days, the best you can do is lock in three or four players, and the rest is a blender. The keys are cost and resourcefulness, plus a willingness to be open-minded to the abilities of players in other cities. When Trevor Daley went from Dallas to Chicago and didn’t pan out, that didn’t stop Rutherford from thinking Daley would still be effective as a Penguin, and he has been.
Finally, the Pens have a scouting department and farm system that is still producing cheap, high-end help. In 2013 forward Jake Guentzel was a smart, unheralded pick out of the USHL at 77th overall. The year before that in a brilliant piece of draft work, the Pens snagged Olli Maatta 22nd overall and hit the jackpot with goalie Matt Murray with the 83rd pick.
So even when top picks such as Joe Morrow, Derrick Pouliot, Beau Bennett and Simon Despres didn’t work out, getting Guentzel, Maatta and Murray made an enormous difference, and at a salary that worked for the Pens.
These are all signs of an elite, functioning hockey office. Rutherford, meanwhile, went from semi-retirement after leaving Carolina to back on top of the hockey world, and is probably the most underrated NHL general manager of the past 20 years. Rutherford’s sense of timing made him believe replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan as head coach in mid-December of 2015 was the right move, even though Rutherford had hired Johnston 18 months earlier.
With all their key personnel under contract for next year, another sign of a quality organization, the Pens will almost certainly remain a contender with a lineup now filled with players who own at least two Cup rings.
In the modern NHL, building a team like the ’79 Habs is impossible. But you can build a terrific organization. These days, organization trumps talent.
Damien Cox is the co-host of Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for The Star. Follow him @DamoSpin. His column appears Tuesday and Saturday.

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