Captain Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins stand with the Stanley Cup in the locker room after Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Penguins defeated the Predators 2-0. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators 4-2. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE — At the beginning of the Stanley Cup final, I asked Jimmy Rutherford about the combined legacies of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and what it would mean for them to have won one more Stanley Cup than Mario Lemieux managed as a player with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He stopped me before I finished the question: “Just one?” he said. “I think there will be more Stanley Cups in their future. This isn’t the end, you know.”
They now have three championship celebrations, the best 1-2 punch in the National Hockey League, maybe the best 1-2 punch at centre since Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, since Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, since Lemieux and Ron Francis, since the best pairing ever, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
And maybe better than some of those combinations.
They now have three championships each and the tendency on the day after the Stanley Cup is presented is to bring in the word dynasty, define what is in these new financially-complicated times, and try and figure just how set up the championship team is to win more crowns.
The Chicago Blackhawks have won three championships in the salary cap era, none of them two in a row like the Penguins. Los Angeles Kings won twice and looked to be all set up with Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick and Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter all signed long-term. Dean Lombardi appeared poised to win more championships. Instead, the team has never been close again, general manager Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter have been fired, and the Kings are now in fix-it, what-the-hell-happened mode.
Crosby and Malkin aren’t anywhere near old or tired or in any kind of decline. And yet for six years, they were never close really to Cup contention after winning in 2009. This team was different, different from last year even, and not necessarily in a talent-laden way. This team was different the way Joel Quenneville’s Blackhawks were different, the way any of Scotty Bowman’s championship teams were different: They were superbly coached by Mike Sullivan, one of the new masters of his craft.
The Penguins' Cup victory, though, went against conventional thinking in hockey and unconventional thinking also. This playoff year, they didn’t have Kris Letang, their only all-star on defence, in the lineup. They got away with spare part here and spare part there on the blueline and that by itself is extraordinary by today’s standards of what constitutes a championship team.
Chicago won with Duncan Keith on defence. Los Angeles had Doughty. Boston had Zdeno Chara. Anaheim had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. Detroit had Nick Lidstrom. Colorado had Rob Blake. Lou Lamoriello’s championship teams in New Jersey had Niedermayer and Scott Stevens.
All of them are -- or are going to be -- Hockey Hall of Famers.
Pittsburgh’s first pair on defence was Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey. They will never be on anybody’s ballot, except maybe Crosby.
“That group of guys,” he said, “what they were willing to do and what they bring, it’s all so important. I could go through every guy (the others being Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta) .... There was probably a lot of people thinking the same thing.”
The thing was: how do you win with those guys?
“I think they proved what they’re capable of. I think that the group being together for last year, too, that helped them. You know, Daley was out at some point and guys who filled in did a great job and we picked up a couple of veteran guys (Hainsey, who had never played a playoff game in a rather ordinary career, being one). I can’t say enough about that group. It was pretty difficult what they were able to do night in and night out.”
The encouraging part in a copy-cat world: Every team has to believe they have a defence good enough to win a Cup.
What they don’t have is Crosby and Malkin. The Conn Smythe Trophy winner and the obvious choice as runner up. The rest of the Penguins forwards -- Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel aside -- are meh. And Kessel’s influence in the final was negligible: He scored once, the fifth goal in a 6-0 Game 5 whitewash by the Penguins. When the bright lights came on, with the two days off playing a huge factor in providing life and health for Pittsburgh, Crosby put on his own personal Tour de Force and Malkin was right behind him.
Crosby and Malkin aren’t leaving, are motivated for more, and with Sullivan’s coaching, with the steadiness of Matt Murray in goal, with Letang returning on defence, Rutherford is right: There should be more championships in the future.
There should be.
But as determined from the last two seasons of the Kings and the Blackhawks, what might look easy or obvious from the outside usually isn’t.