Bruins, Penguins face fascinating off-seasons
What’s next for the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins?
Perhaps that’s a surprising question, considering Boston is fresh off the most dominant regular season in history, besting the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens in Jim Montgomery’s first season behind the bench. The team was shockingly upset in the first round by the Florida Panthers, who would go on to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
We see sizable upsets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs more frequently than other North American leagues, in large part because of inherent volatility and randomness in our low-scoring sport.
I think it would be foolish to draw a line from Boston’s first-round upset to something deeper – they ran into a white-hot Sergei Bobrovsky, and the goaltending they leaned on to blow through the East during the regular season evaporated when they needed it most.
And then there are the Pittsburgh Penguins – recent winners of two titles (2016 and 17), and three total in the Sidney Crosby era. Pittsburgh, like Boston, has remained competitive every year, but the 2022-23 regular season was underwhelming.
Not only did the Penguins miss the postseason altogether, but they also finished the year with a negative goal differential. Pittsburgh’s leadership, obviously disappointed in the results, turfed former general manager Ron Hextall to bring in former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas.
Both teams have shown an extraordinary ability to reload talent and deliver contenders year after year, and betting against either organization has always been a losing proposition. Sustaining this type of performance in a hard-cap, draft lottery-driven league that disadvantages winners is extraordinarily difficult.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Remember the late 2000s and early 2010 dynastic franchises? Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings dominated the league for ages, and put together one of the most dominant lineups in recent history en route to the 2007-08 title. There were also Joel Quenneville’s Chicago Blackhawks, who won titles in 2010, 2013, and 2015. Darryl Sutter’s Los Angeles Kings won titles in 2012 and 2014. And in the background were the San Jose Sharks: a league juggernaut year after year, but one that couldn’t get over the proverbial hump.
For a long while in the NHL, a handful of teams occupied the top spots in the standings. But all of these dynasties ended, and quite often it happened in a blink. Whether it was pressure from the salary cap, aging cores, or a myriad of other factors, they all followed a franchise life cycle. Just as it’s hard to stay bad forever, it’s hard to stay good forever, too.
Consider the plot of these teams by way of goal differential since 2007-08. Pay close attention to the trends of these dynasties juxtaposed against Boston and Pittsburgh specifically:
Boston has won one title (2011) with this core, and in fairness to their peers, had a younger core that was able to sustain itself a bit longer. They also have done impressive work giving face-of-the-franchise types in Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand help – forward David Pastrnak and defenceman Charlie McAvoy are bona fide superstars who should keep this team competitive for a while longer.
Pittsburgh was similarly situated, with a youthful dynamic trio in Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang keying multiple championship runs. But consider how their core has aged, too: Crosby is now 35; Malkin and Letang 36. All three are not only in the twilight of their careers, but have significantly more mileage than their peers, owing to so many deep postseason runs.
Every other franchise, at some point, saw a sharp rollover in performance that ultimately drove a rebuild. The Kings have been able to stay reasonably competitive, but we have seen complete lineup destruction in San Jose, Chicago, and Detroit.
It seems like we are, finally, prepared to see a changing of the guard in the Eastern Conference. I suspect Boston will be able to hold on longer than Pittsburgh – there’s simply more talent across the lineup, and last year’s results speak for themselves.
But these might be the two toughest front office jobs heading into 2023-24. Incredibly high expectations, impressively little flexibility, and the reality that Father Time comes for us all.
There are fascinating off-seasons ahead for both franchises. Don Sweeney and Dubas have a series of remarkably difficult roster decisions, and the pressure in these markets won’t abate an ounce until we start to see real capitulation in performance.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference