Sports Making a modern dynasty: Penguins in position for Stanley Cup history with three-peat

17:26  04 october  2017
17:26  04 october  2017 Source:   Sporting News

Penguins say they will visit White House with Stanley Cup

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Five teams in the history of the NHL have won three straight Stanley Cups . Two in hand, the Penguins so far have done it the hard way, facing unprecedented roster turnover and league-wide parity.

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Penguins three-peat © (Getty Images) Penguins three-peat

When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin arrived in Pittsburgh more than a decade ago, there seemed to be an immediate expectation, even before they won their first playoff series or playoff game, that they were going to be the cornerstone pieces of the NHL’s next great dynasty.

As they get ready to begin the 2017-18 season (Crosby’s 12th; Malkin’s 11th), they are pretty close to actually reaching those lofty, seemingly unrealistic expectations.

Individually, their resumes speak for themselves. They are two of the greatest offensive players in league history.

The team success is there as well.

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With their second consecutive Stanley Cup and third in eight years, the Pittsburgh Penguins are becoming a modern dynasty . A Three Peat ?

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Since the start of the 2006-07 season, when Crosby and Malkin were first united in Pittsburgh, no team in the league has won more regular season games than the Penguins’ 514. No team has won more than their 91 playoff games. They are so far ahead of the rest of the pack in that category that the No. 2 team on that list, the Blackhawks, are currently 15 behind them at 76. Only one other team, the Red Wings, have won more than 65 since then (they have 66).

The Penguins' four Stanley Cup Final appearances are the most in the NHL, while their five conference finals trips are tied for the most.

playoffsgraphic.png © Provided by Sporting News playoffsgraphic.png

When you look at the list of accomplishments, they are by any measure the most successful team in the league over the past 10 years. Now they have a chance to do something that no team has done in more than three years — win a third consecutive Stanley Cup.

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Given the landscape of the league now versus the last time it happened with the Islanders of the early 1980s, it would be an historic — and almost unbelievable — accomplishment. It is also fascinating to see exactly how the Penguins ended up getting to this point, because their chance at history is coming after pretty much everyone had given up on their chances of actually reaching their early career expectations. 

A new type of dynasty

When the Penguins went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals in 2007-08 and 2008-09, winning it all in the latter year, it wasn’t a question of whether or not they would win another one, but how quickly they would do it and how many they would stack on top of one another. Crosby and Malkin were already two of the best players in the world and still hadn’t reached their peak, they had what looked to be a strong supporting cast, and they already had championship experience. 

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Then the realities of a salary capped, 30-team league where teams have to get through a marathon regular season and grueling postseason started to set in.

That supporting cast over the next few years slowly started to break apart, especially as players like Crosby and Malkin landed mega-contracts. It forced management to make tough decisions around the edges and for a while they were unable to find adequate replacements. No matter how good your top two or three players are, hockey is not a sport where a single superstar (or even two) can single-handedly lead a team to a championship because there are going to be stretches where those players get shut down. The supporting cast needs to be in place as well.

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There were seasons where injuries decimated the roster come playoff time. There was the occasional goaltending meltdown that sabotaged a potentially deep playoff run. There was the year Jaroslav Halak got white hot and derailed the Capitals and Penguins, briefly altering the short-term paths of three different NHL franchises because he made his team think it was better than it was, while also making a defending Stanley Cup champion and a 56-win team think they were doing something wrong.

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Then the Mike Johnston era happened and, well, the less said about that, the better.

During those six years where the Penguins were getting bounced in the first or second round five times, often to a lower-seeded team, there was a growing disappointment with the Crosby-Malkin era, especially as teams like the Blackhawks and Kings had won multiple championships. 

Adjusting on the fly

Every year the Penguins didn’t win another championship, there was a discussion as to whether or not they ever would be able to reach those heights again given their sizable contracts and how much cap space they were taking up. It wasn’t uncommon to enter an offseason where you read multiple “maybe it is time for the Penguins to trade Crosby and Malkin” takes.

Can't win with two superstars making so much money. Need to replenish the depth. Just need a change because this is just is not working.

The Penguins, however, smartly realized that their chances were still better with the two superstars and that instead of getting rid of two of the most productive players in league history, they needed to rebuild the depth around them. Over the past few years, that has happened in pretty drastic fashion with the addition of Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino (before he left in free agency this past summer) and a farm system that finally started to produce an essential ingredient in a salary cap league — cheap, productive, impact talent in the form of Matt Murray, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. 

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There might be another wave coming this season with Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese.

Those additions, combined with Crosby and Malkin still producing at an elite level, have put the Penguins in a position where they can chase history this season and join some of the NHL’s most legendary teams.

Even winning two consecutive championships in this era is almost unheard of, happening just five times in the past 30 years (the Oilers and Penguins two different times; the Red Wings once).

But three in a row? In the history of the league that has happened just five times.

penguins-three-peat-graphic © Provided by Sporting News penguins-three-peat-graphic

What stands out about those dynasties, and the ones the Penguins have a chance to claim for themselves, is how different the league was then versus now.

The first three teams to win three in a row did so in a league where there were only six teams.

There were only 12 teams in the league when the Canadiens won three in a row in the late 70s. There were only 17 in the early 1980s when the Islanders were winning every year. The first three teams on that list were also playing in an era where seasons were significantly shorter and the playoffs weren’t as long, so the physical demands weren’t quite they are now in an 82-game regular season followed by four rounds of best-of-seven hockey.

A different era

The Penguins have not only won consecutive titles in a 30-team league with free agency and constant player movement, they have done it in a salary cap era that was supposed to create league-wide parity and make it harder for teams to win. 

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Those factors have resulted in a little more roster turnover for the Penguins than some of teams mentioned above.

Of the 23 players the Penguins have under contract for the 2017-18 season as they go for their third Cup in a row, 14 of them played on the team that won two years ago. Roughly 60 percent of the roster.

Just a little more than 65 percent of the players that played for the 1982-83 Islanders (17 out of 26) were on the first team that won in 1980. More than 71 percent of the 1979 Canadiens (20 out of 28) were part of all three winning teams for that dynasty, while the early 60s Maple Leafs had more than 76 percent of their 1964 championship roster play on all three Cup-winning teams.

It is simply a completely different era in every single way.

A lot of things have to go right to win even one championship in the NHL. A great team, playing its best hockey at the right time of year, being able to stay healthy, and getting a little bit of luck along the way. Having all of that happen again for a second year in a row is asking a lot. Expecting it to happen three years in a row is asking even more. But looking at the Penguins roster, even after the summer turnover (and even with the couple of holes that remain) they still have team that has a chance to pull this off.

If they do — they enter the season as the odds-on favorites, according to Vegas — it would put them among the NHL’s most legendary teams in an era where that type of sustained dominance wasn’t supposed to happen.

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