The Pittsburgh Penguins are on the brink

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No one ever wants to admit the end is coming, much less is here. Especially when there are signs that it’s still a bit of a ways off, if one knows where to look. There will come a day when the Pittsburgh Penguins will recede into the background, which they haven’t really done since the beginning of the century. The only question is when will the Penguins themselves face that reality? Cold November rain and all that . . .

Did the Bucks want Doc Rivers as head coach all along?

It has not been the season the Pens and GM Kyle Dubas would have envisioned, at least not in the standings, when they traded for Erik Karlsson in very much a “last roundup” pushing in of all the chips. The Pens are fourth in the wild-card standings, and trail the Flyers for the last automatic spot in the Metro Divison by five points with 36 games to go. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but in Gary Betmman’s everyone-gets-a-trophy standings system, with three-point games littering the countryside, it’s mountainous.

But it might not be as bad as it looks. One, the Penguins have three games in hand on Detroit, who hold the last wild-card spot. They have four games in hand on the Flyers. The Pens haven’t been consistent enough to assume they will win all those games in hand, but there is enough rope for them to climb out of the hole.

Furthermore, the Pens remain one of the best even-strength teams in the league. They’re top-ten in both attempts-share and expected goals-share. They’re getting very good goaltending. The problem is that their power play stinks, and they can’t get right when the game goes to the carnival ride of 3-on-3. It’s costing them points, which is why they are where they are. It might also help if they could leave Ryan Graves in an alley dumpster right before pickup.

All of it leaves the Pens in a tricky position. When loading up with Karlsson to join Crosby, Malkin and Letang, it would be easy to assume the Penguins are going to do whatever it takes to maximize this season and this season alone. A trade for Karlsson doesn’t really signal any thought about tomorrow.

At the same time, buried in the wild-card race isn’t usually a position where a team will start tossing draft picks and prospects out of their pockets into the marketplace and see who will give them what for the loot. But the Penguins aren’t the normal team, who have to feel that they owe their four generational players one last run at it all.

Except, maybe not?

The Penguins have two options. This is neither of them.

There is no “soft” rebuild available to the Penguins. In two or three years, Crosby, Malkin and Letang will be 40 or right up against it, and almost certainly no longer the kind of players that anchor a challenger. Though with Crosby one can never be sure. When the Penguins get there, it’s over. New era time. Straight into the muck, for however long it takes to emerge again. To try to reload for even two years down the line is trying to build a castle in the sand. It’s not gonna work for them, brother.

So either the Pens go all in this year, find a second-pairing d-man so that they don’t have to saddle Karlsson or Letang with the weight-vest that is Graves, and maybe a third-line center, or shake hands with the demon of the end.

Can the Pens go all-in? There is some bad paper here. Bryan Rust for four additional seasons at $5 million is a rough go. Rickard Rakell is having some rotten shooting luck this season making his similar contract look worse than it might be. And, of course, Graves’s deal, which is nearing sinking-ocean-liner levels of suction. To lose any of those deals to a tanking team like the Sharks or Hawks or whoever else, they’d have to attach something that they’d need to acquire a player that can help. The Pens don’t have a first-round pick in the 2024 draft, nor a second-rounder in the 2025 draft. The prospect pool is hardly deep. They can’t run the dual track of dumping a contract or two and using that cap space to add. They don’t have enough.

But can they really blow it up? Sidney Crosby isn’t playing anywhere else. No one’s taking the Letang contract without the Pens eating a lot of it. Maybe Malkin, who is signed for only two more seasons, piques interest. A Karlsson trade with that contract, even with the Sharks already retaining a small portion, is nearly impossible to pull off in the middle of the season.

Much like the Golden State Warriors, as long as Crosby is there (and Karlsson pretty much guaranteed to be), the Pens probably can’t tear it down and start over. No one wants to watch Crosby lead out a team full of whosits and whatsits as they focus on the next draft or stat lines from the Canadian backwater or the NCAA. No one’s going to stand for it.

If Dubas is the stats nerd we’ve always been sold he is, he’ll lean into the underlying numbers that say the Pens are a minor switch of luck and play from a hot streak that carries them into the postseason (and if he’s the wrestling nerd everyone says he is he’ll be fantasy booking Kazuchika Okada’s run in AEW). Whatever they may say, there probably isn’t another path.

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