The Pittsburgh Penguins won their second straight Stanley Cup last night with a 2-0 victory over the Nashville Predators. After splitting the first four games with Nashville, the Pens won the final two games scoring eight goals–while shutting out the Predators. That’s right, 8-0.
In this day in age, winning two Stanley Cups in a row is unheard of. The last time it was accomplished was in 1999, when the Detroit Red Wings won their second in a row. That is no accident, as the NHL has purposely set the league up to provide parity among the (soon to be) 31 teams. Even the way the expansion draft will be run later this month will give Las Vegas a chance to be competitive within a year or two.
So, how have the Penguins managed to win the Cup two times in a row and three in the last nine seasons? The easy answer is that they drafted Sidney Crosby, the best hockey player in the NHL, in 2005. But, although it is true that without Crosby this double win would not have happened (prior to Crosby coming aboard, the Pens had missed the playoffs for four years in a row, a pattern that continued through Crosby’s first season), the Pen’s captain is only a piece of the reason that Pittsburgh hoisted the Cup last night.
Over the years, the Penguins were able to draft (and hold on to) as well as trade for top players. Yes, being terrible in the mid 2000s allowed the team to draft Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc Andrew Fleury, but the team managed their money to keep these players, while also drafting (in the third round) key players Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, and Matt Murray. Letang, by far Pittsburgh’s most dangerous defenseman, did not even play in the post-season (but will get his name on the Cup because he played in 41 regular season games). But, another blueliner, Justin Schultz, who was picked up from Edmonton at the trade deadline in 2016, filled in admirably. The 26-year old Schultz had been a highly touted offensive defenseman when he was drafted by Anaheim in 2008. After four years at the University of Wisconsin, he opted to become a free agent and signed with Edmonton, but it was not until he settled into the Pens system that Schultz reached his potential.
Guentzel was drafted by Pittsburgh in the third round of the 2013 entry draft. He is a rookie, who only played a half season in the NHL. Yes, he played well in his three seasons at the University of Nebraska–Omaha, but nothing in his record could predict that Guentzel would provide the Pens with five game winning goals in this 2017 post-season.
Murray was drafted the year before Guentzel. Although, he had put up good numbers at the U18 WJCs that year, he did not look as good back in the Soo, his OHL team. The Pens drafted him in the third round anyway. Murray proceeded to look even worse the following year, and then turned a corner in his first professional season.
And let’s not forget Phil Kessel, who was an incredible get for Pittsburgh. After not finding a good fit in Boston and Toronto (mostly due to Kessel not doing well with being “the franchise player”), the Penguins were able to trade for him and the #60 pick in the summer of 2015. They basically paid for it by losing their #30 and #90 overall picks last year and Kasperi Kapanen. Several other minor league players were in the transaction, but for the second year in a row, Kessel figured prominently in Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run, and dare I say it, without Kessel, the Pens don’t win either Cup.
And lastly there is Fleury. There is an excellent chance that Las Vegas will choose Fleury in the expansion draft and Pittsburgh will get nothing for him. Although the team could have traded the netminder at the deadline in March, they chose to keep him for the post-season. Without Fleury, the Penguins likely would not have won the Cup either. Fleury played 15 games in the post-season, while Murray was recovering from injury; he carried the team until Murray could get back between the pipes.
The thing is that, even though we–the fans, the writers, the (part-time) scouts–did not always see the wisdom in the Penguins front office decisions, time after time, the management, scouting, and coaching judgments have been spot on. It is not just getting lucky by choosing Crosby in the draft, it is who else the team chooses to surround their star player with and how to allocate their money. You can’t field a Stanley Cup on the cheap, but just throwing money at players who have star potential or who are on the downside of their careers won’t do it either.
All three New York area teams ought to take note.