The Pittsburgh Penguins are now five years removed from their last Stanley Cup championship. That would be good news for franchises like the Toronto Maple Leafs or St. Louis Blues, organizations that have gone the better part of 40 years without an appearance in the Cup Final.
For the Penguins, however, this half-decade streak has been viewed as a total failure. That's the breaks when you employ two of the top 10 players in the NHL.
When the team won the Cup in 2009, the average age of players on the roster was 26, as per Hockey-Reference.com. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were all just starting to scratch the surface of their prime playing years, and there seemed to be a dynasty evolving before our very eyes.
Five years is a long time in professional sports, and climbing to the top of the NHL's mountain is a brutal and challenging task—one that takes an abundance of skill and luck. Things are different in Pittsburgh now. Still, it's an interesting exercise to compare the current team's roster to the one that earned a Stanley Cup banner in 2009.
A quick glance at that roster will reveal a handful of things. For instance, the team's core hasn't changed all that much. Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury are still leading the charge, while the players around them have rotated in and out of the lineup as the salary cap dictates.
The most obvious difference that fans and pundits tend to pound on is the presence of Jordan Staal as the team's No. 3 center in 2009. He was Pittsburgh's third-leading scorer during the regular season and was tasked with shutting down Henrik Zetterberg during the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. It's tough to replace that kind of production and defensive responsibility.
Of course, Staal was traded at the draft that summer after turning down a long-term extension to stay with the Penguins. If you ask people to describe the difference between the '09 roster and the 2014-15 roster, odds are good that they'd hone in on the Staal deal and how Brandon Sutter hasn't filled in as advertised. While this is true (and there are reasons for Sutter's struggles), that isn't the main variation between the two units.
In 2009, the Penguins sported trio of high-end centers, but those centers had quality veteran players to skate with. Malkin, Crosby and Staal were the top three scorers on the team during the 2009 regular season, but they had a large number of solid players capable of pitching in 30-plus points while keeping heads cool on the bench.
- Petr Sykora was a quiet 46-point player during the regular season, finishing fourth behind the aforementioned trio.
- Then 30-year-old Ruslan Fedotenko finished fifth in regular-season scoring and pitched in seven goals en route to the Cup. He's still remembered as one of Malkin's top linemates.
- The Penguins traded for Bill Guerin in March of '09. He was quiet during his 17 games during the regular-season campaign but added seven goals and eight assists while giving the Penguins a power-forward-esque presence to work with during the postseason.
- It's next to impossible to replace puck-moving defensemen outright, and the Penguins have been trying to replace Sergei Gonchar since this Cup run.
- Hal Gill catches flack for being a lumbering pylon these days, but he appeared in all 24 playoff games for the Penguins and played a valuable shutdown role.
Perhaps the gap between the 2009 Penguins and the 2014 Penguins isn't as simple as the third-line center role, then. It appears that the biggest difference isn't the quality of the third center on the depth chart; rather, it's the quality up and down the chart overall.
Since 2009, the Penguins simply haven't been able to ice a comparable amount of talent. Fedotenko, Guerin, Sykora and Gonchar aren't names that leap off the page at you, but they played invaluable roles in helping Pittsburgh make back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup Final (2007-08 and 2008-09).
The natural question, then: Has general manager Jim Rutherford done enough with the 2014 roster to make it comparable to the one from 2009, assuming this is desirable because of the result in '09?
While he hasn't unearthed veterans like Fedotenko or Guerin, the 2014 group is shaping up to be the deepest Penguins team since the Stanley Cup win. Sutter might not be able to pitch in with Staal-like numbers, but there's little doubt that the wings he'll be playing with for the 2014-15 campaign are of a higher quality than the ones he played with last season.
The James Neal trade isn't popular because of how the headline reads, but the underlying numbers suggest that it could be a solid deal for the Penguins in the long run. Patric Hornqvist could play a Guerin-like role, getting to the crease and generally causing havoc in front of the opposition's net.
Nick Spaling notched 32 points last season and gives Pittsburgh another intriguing option for the bottom six. Perhaps he steps in and performs like Sykora did in 2009? The goal here isn't to make direct connections between a particular player from '09 and the current roster. Instead, we're just examining how the current players could fill similar roles.
The concept behind the roster for the 2014-15 season obviously differs, as Rutherford is trying to demolish the distinction between the scoring line and the checking line, but folks like to look to history for answers. Whether Rutherford's work will propel the Penguins to another Stanley Cup remains to be seen, but he's addressed the biggest discrepancy between the championship roster and the modern group—and that's depth.
The veteran leadership quotient isn't as high as it was in '09, but that's because Crosby, Letang and others have taken on larger roles in the locker room. Overall, the Penguins have a better shot at winning the Cup in 2014-15 than they have had at any point since 2009, and that's not because of a new third-line center.
That's because Rutherford has fleshed out the roster with actual NHL-caliber players who can contribute 20 or 30 points in an 82-game season.
That's a big step in the right direction for a franchise that's struggled to make much noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2009.