There was something poetic about what Kyle Dubas pulled off on Sunday, even more astounding than eliminating much of Ron Hextall’s ineptitude in one swoop while preserving the few young assets at the Penguins’ disposal.
More than anything, Dubas has given Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin a platform to jump beyond themselves one final time.
Crosby turned 36 on Monday. Malkin turned 37 last week. I imagine they’ll both play until they’re around 40, though no one will stop them if they want to play longer. In terms of still being dominant players, however, we know the window will close pretty soon. That’s life, even for icons. For too many years, Crosby and Malkin have been forced to carry the burden of a mediocre roster that was becoming staler by the season. Even they couldn’t will the Penguins to the playoffs last spring despite both playing in every game.
Hextall never understood that his primary objective, regardless of what he was curiously told once upon a time, was to honor Crosby and Malkin appropriately by giving them the resources to make one final run. Dubas clearly understands. Now, an equal of theirs — a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer — is joining them. For once, someone can provide one of them with a tap-in goal. It’s been a while since that was a possibility.
Even more so, Dubas acquired a player with so much Penguins DNA that his blood must drip black and gold.
The Penguins have existed since 1967, but they weren’t relevant until 1984. Since then, with the exception of a handful of years, they’ve been the Lakers of the NHL.
Since Mario Lemieux entered the league almost 40 years ago, no NHL team has won more than the Penguins’ five championships. No franchise has come close to producing their star power, either. It’s who the Penguins are. Lemieux. Crosby. Malkin. Jaromir Jagr. Paul Coffey. Ron Francis. Kris Letang. Kevin Stevens. Alex Kovalev. Joey Mullen. Mark Recchi. Bryan Trottier. Rick Tocchet. Larry Murphy. Sergei Gonchar.
We can play this game all day. You know the names. And now, we add Erik Karlsson to the list.
With one deal, so much has been accomplished.
That stale feeling that has been suffocating the Penguins for more than a year? It’s gone. The Penguins badly needed a spark, and in the defending Norris Trophy winner, they received a jolt to their system.
While the empty seats you saw last season weren’t crippling by any stretch — the Penguins’ regular season ticket revenue actually surpassed the season before, in fact — their fan base needed a jolt, too. The phones were ringing off the hook at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday. The season-ticket base is about to expand after a few years of decline.
Those are all important variables and can’t be dismissed.
But my mind keeps drifting back to Crosby and Malkin, and what this means to them.
I haven’t a clue if the Penguins of this era are going to skate with the Stanley Cup again. On the surface, it feels pretty unlikely. Old teams don’t typically win championships, the rest of the league (especially the unforgiving Eastern Conference) keeps getting better, and I’m not sold on Tristan Jarry being the goaltender who will guide the Penguins to the promised land.
Karlsson not only gives the Penguins hope, he does so in the most beautifully Penguins way.
If you know your history, recent or 35 years ago, you know what the Penguins are about. They’ve never been a great defensive team, not once in their history. They are to offense what the Steelers are to defense. It’s how they win. It’s their DNA. It’s what their fans expect. It’s what historically has driven them to the very top.
The Penguins are never going to 2-1 their way to a championship. Look at how they’re constructed. Look at their best players. Do you think Jarry is going to go on a heater and put the Penguins on his back?
Could you imagine a scenario where the Penguins play a style so disciplined and defensively precise — kind of like what Vegas just did — that they’ll shut down teams for 16 postseason wins this spring?
How about the idea of the Penguins physically beating teams up, willing their way through four rounds via brute force?
You’re shaking your heads right now because you realize those scenarios are utterly unlikely and preposterous.
But try imagining this.
Karlsson, who has similar endurance to Letang, has a magnificent season in Pittsburgh. Plausible. He just had one for the horrific Sharks.
Letang and Karlsson, two puck-possession monsters, are on the ice more than 80 percent of the time this season. Which means the Penguins have the puck most of the time.
Which means the Penguins score a lot of goals. Plausible.
The revamped bottom six plays better defensively and subsequently makes the penalty kill much better this season. Plausible, if not likely.
Jarry, who was always healthy before the past 18 months, gets through a season relatively unscathed and leads the Penguins to the playoffs. Plausible.
Those are a lot of ifs, yes. But nothing about those scenarios is wildly unthinkable. In fact, I imagine they’re all probably going to happen.
Then comes the postseason. A Stanley Cup isn’t going to be easy to attain. Did I mention how good the league is right now? Ask yourself this: Would all of this be enough if the Penguins were to make one, final, dramatic run next spring? Or the spring after? Would it be enough to see Crosby and Malkin back in the playoffs, pulling off a series win or two, being the talk of the hockey world while looking New Jersey, Carolina, Vegas or Colorado right in the eye?
It would be quite a story. With the addition of Karlsson, the Penguins not only have added a superior player to their lineup, they’ve added the one available player in the NHL who can help Crosby and Malkin still be Crosby and Malkin.
The Penguins’ way is with star power, pure talent and hockey genius. In Karlsson, they’ve added a player who embodies all those qualities.
Lemieux is long gone from the days of making decisions. When he was the majority owner in Pittsburgh, however, the man who rarely speaks told his trusted staff members that, so long as he was around, the Penguins were going to be winners. And they were going to win by being an offensive juggernaut. Because it was the Penguins way.
The rest of the NHL is going bigger. Heavier. Two-way hockey is what wins.
While the Penguins can’t ignore defense — even their Cup teams could shut things down on occasion when the situation called for it — they’re simply going to attempt to outscore the NHL this season. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.
In Karlsson, they’ve landed the one player who can truly help their quest.
Along the way, they’ll be anything but boring. What’s more Penguins than that?
(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)