Penguins' playoff chances melting away
Flyers' Nicklas Grossman gets his glove in the face of Penguins' Sidney Crosby during game one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center Wednesday night.
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It is not the Penguins' most pressing concern today.
Nor should it be.
Not when they're staring at absorbing what could go down as the most ignominious playoff setback in franchise history.
They trail Philadelphia, 3-0, in an Eastern Conference first-round series. Their season could end as early as Wednesday night, when they will face the Flyers in Game 4 at Wells Fargo Center.
There's an obvious urgency to that, so the Penguins' focus is on the 60 minutes immediately in front of them and finding a way to keep their season on life-support, not on immersing themselves in a big-picture analysis.
Still, as the Penguins flirt with having their 2011-12 season discussed in the past tense, it's difficult to not view this spring as becoming yet another opportunity lost for this franchise.
Just a few years back -- especially after the Stanley Cup victory in 2009 -- they were widely regarded as the best possibility for a dynasty, or something resembling one, in the post-lockout NHL.
A group whose young core surely was destined to be torn apart at some point by forces ranging from egos to salary-cap stresses to advancing age, but only after running off a few championships.
The Penguins still haven't forged a sequel to that remarkable run three seasons ago and will have to defy decades of precedents to have a chance to do it this spring. Only three teams in league history have rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
And while the window of opportunity with this nucleus of talent might not be ready to slam shut just yet, neither is it the gaping opening it was a few years back.
The NHL's collective bargaining agreement expires in September, and even without the uncertainty of how its eventual replacement might affect the Penguins' ability to keep their core intact, most of their key players are starting to approach the end of their current contracts.
Although no one of major consequence is scheduled to become a free agent this summer, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal have contracts that run out in 2013; Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik are on agreements that expire a year later.
Under terms of the CBA in place, all will be unrestricted free agents after completing their contracts. Orpik, 31, is the oldest of the group.
"I'm already looking at how many years you have left, rather than how many years you have in front of you," he said recently. "A guy like [Staal] is probably looking at, 'How many years do I have in front of me?' "
Regardless, any would be free to leave when his contract is up for whatever reason, whether it's to get more money, a more prominent role or simply because he would like to play in a particular city or region.
"While we can, while we have a good overall team, we have to try to make the most of it," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has three years remaining on his contract.
It's possible that, if the Penguins lose their third consecutive playoff series, management will decide a major overhaul is in order and the nucleus will be revamped. But even if general manager Ray Shero decides he wants to hold onto all of his core players, there's no guarantee he'll be able to do that.
Not only because they might not have the salary-cap space to keep all of those guys and still flesh out a competitive roster, but also because evolving personnel needs could make a player who is irreplaceable today expendable six months from now.
Roster turnover on high-end teams is inevitable, just as it is for clubs that need to upgrade their personnel. Generally, management strives to keep the foundation of a group it views as a Cup contender intact, limiting the changes to those in supporting roles, but that isn't always possible.
"The one constant with any team, no matter whether you win a Cup, is change," Shero said. "It's a matter of who that could be."
He added that, in the wake of the Cup victory in 2009, "it seems like the last two springs have just flown by."
That might be because the Penguins' stay in the playoffs didn't last long either time. Montreal upset them in the second round in 2010, and Tampa Bay ended their postseason in the first round in seven games a year ago.
Another early exit this season and, even with the Penguins' core of world-class players, they might begin to lose some of their appeal to free agents who crave an opportunity to compete for a championship.
But even if the Penguins continue to bring in quality players to serve in complementary roles, their ability to compete for Stanley Cups hinges mostly on the productivity of their top players -- and keeping those guys on the depth chart through the prime years of their careers.
"You have to try to take advantage of every opportunity you get," Shero said. "Because you don't know how many chances you'll get with this particular group."
First Published April 17, 2012 5:14 pm