Sidney Crosby and the Penguins Are at a Crossroads After Playoff Elimination

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIMay 27, 2021

New York Islanders' Brock Nelson celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal as Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) skates past them during the second period of Game 6 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series, Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

UNIONDALE, New York — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin cemented their legacies long before the 2021 postseason. That happened back in 2009 when they won their first of three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But there was still something unsettling about the way they were eliminated from the 2021 postseason Wednesday night with a 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders in Game 6 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

The Penguins probably have enough firepower to win another Cup. They have the center depth and the blue line. It's not the deepest roster, but they possess enough weapons to supplement Sid and Geno. They have the scoring, and they have the stifling defense to make it stand up. Maybe.

Pittsburgh had one of the best records over the final two months of the the season despite injuries to key players—Malkin included—but then was eliminated before the Eastern Conference Final for the fourth straight year. The games were close, including one overtime game, one double-overtime game and two others decided by one goal.

Either no one seems to know exactly what went wrong or no one is willing to point any fingers.

"I don't know if it's one thing," Crosby said in his postgame Zoom press conference. "I thought we got better as the series went on, and I think you look at two overtime games that we lost, being able to win one of those would have been huge. But I think we did a lot of good things. The last couple games we played really well."

It's not much of an answer, and it raises the question of whether this group has accomplished all it can together. We might be seeing the end of an era in Pittsburgh, or maybe the beginning of the end.

Malkin and Kris Letang each has a year remaining on his contract, so there will be talks of extensions this summer. But the club is right up against the salary cap, and with a new regime in charge, it's fair to question whether general manager Ron Hextall and team president Brian Burke might want to make changes to the roster or behind the bench.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

If they can't extend Malkin or Letang, is it worth keeping them? Is it time for a roster shakeup?

"They've been saying that for four years, right, so I don't know if I'm going to change anybody's mind," Crosby said. "I think we did a lot of good things this year. You can look at every year and analyze it differently. We had a good group, and we easily could have made a run. I feel pretty confident about this group...with the way that we were trending and the way we finished the year. But it's a fine line in the playoffs."

All involved say this core has another deep run left in them, but they're running out of time to prove it.

"I believe in this core. This is the best core groups of players I have ever been around, bar none," coach Mike Sullivan said. "They're a passionate group, they are generational talents, they still can compete at an extremely high level and they've shown it game in and game out."

So if the core isn't the problem, then what is it?

You could point to a lack of roster depth, which is what happens in a flat-cap league when a team's money is tied up in its stars. The Penguins got vintage performances from Jeff Carter, whom they acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings at the deadline. He turned out to be a driving force in this series with four goals and an assist.

But what will he be capable of next year at 37? What does the depth look like with one of the talented young role players likely headed to Seattle next season via the expansion draft?

Of course, it would be impossible to look at this series and not think that the goaltending was a problem.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

When the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, they had a franchise goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury and a 1-A backup in Matt Murray. They were both cleared out to make room for Tristan Jarry.

If you didn't know Jarry's name before this first-round series, you certainly do now. How could you not after the way the packed Coliseum crowd chanted his last name? It's not his fault his last name is exceptionally easy to chant, and with a group of fans at long last reveling in live hockey, you had to know it was coming with even the slightest of miscues.

And unfortunately for Jarry, there were miscues. And they were costly. One of them in particular cost the team Monday night in double-overtime, gifting the Islanders and Josh Bailey the game-winning goal with a poorly timed turnover in Game 5.

A five-goal Game 6 did little to inspire confidence.

Sullivan chose to protect his embattled goalie, declining to elaborate on any conversations he might have had with coaches about using Maxime Lagace to start the third period after the Islanders scored four times in the second.

"You win games as a team and you lose games as a team," Sullivan said. "It's not any one person's fault."

There is little reason to throw him under the bus after the last game of the series. Besides, he's not wrong. While many fans will blame Jarry for this series, it was not the goaltending alone that bounced Pittsburgh out of the playoffs in the first round.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The vaunted top-line was noticeably absent. Crosby was on the ice for three of the Isles' five goals and got burned in an odd-man rush on the second one.

Letang and others took some bad penalties that resulted in power plays, and discipline was an issue through some of the middle games as the Islanders were easily able to bait the Pens into skirmishes that resulted in their top players going to the penalty box. A player is useless if he can't stay on the ice.

And, of course, there was Barry Trotz's frustrating system. Everyone knows it, yet somehow few can get around it.

"They've done it for years. They play a very structured game, a very simple game, a patient game," Carter said. "When they get opportunities, they capitalize on them."

You can't blame Jarry alone for this playoff exit, and you definitely can't blame him for the past three. You can blame the people who made the decision to let Fleury go to the Vegas Golden Knights and traded Murray to the Ottawa Senators thinking Jarry would be good enough to supplant both of them. But that general manager, Jim Rutherford, isn't even in Pittsburgh anymore, having left the team in the middle of the season for "personal reasons."

So where do the Penguins go from here? What will they look like next season? The front office already has to be preparing for life after their heralded core, but it's difficult to do that without any first-round draft picks. With Pittsburgh constantly in win-now mode, they haven't had a lot of those—only six since 2009.

It's a tough balancing act to try to win now while also building for the future, but as long as Crosby is around they have no choice. There is no damage done to his legacy, but the expectation in Pittsburgh is he and the Penguins will continue to try to build upon it.