It all felt very different almost a decade ago now. Remember when the team followed up a surprising playoff berth, with a surprising Stanley Cup Finals appearance, then with a surprising Stanley Cup championship? It was new, it was exciting, the possibilities were endless, and there was no limit to the future that was laid out before them. Now with that future a good portion in the past, the feelings are much different. The fanbase is jaded, the excitement surrounding the team dwindling with each passing year, and the on ice product feels dull and trite.
This spring will mark seven years since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup and found themselves anointed the next hockey dynasty. The core players from that championship team, the ones that have remained in Pittsburgh, are beginning to exit their prime. The cost of trying to get back to where they were is beginning to be paid; the farm system is mostly bare and it's becoming more and more difficult to fill out the NHL roster with players who can help contend for championships. And it's feeling like the opportunity to contend has started to come full circle: the team rose extremely quickly on its way to the franchise's 3rd Stanley Cup, remained one of the best teams in the league for several years, albeit with more than their fair share of playoff mishaps, and have now began to see that regular season success disappear too. The team currently sits 9th in the Eastern Conference with 30 points and is on pace for 95 points this season. It would be just the 3rd time during the team's current playoff streak that they failed to break a 100 point pace - their late season charge fell just short in 2008-09 when they finished with 99 points, though it propelled them to win the Stanley Cup. The other time was least season when the current downward trend began.
And it's easy to point back to the previous year where things began to go off the rails for this franchise. The team was at a crossroads following the 2013-14 season after they blew a 3-1 lead to the New York Rangers. The Pens had plenty of regular season success, but they were unable to build upon that in the postseason. Whether bad play, bad luck, or a combination of the two, Pittsburgh kept doing the same things and seeing the same results. Something needed to happen that offseason, but any move that needed to be made had to be done so with a delicate touch.
Instead, David Morehouse came in like a wrecking ball. Instead of making moves to retool the team and get them back over the championship hump, ownership decided to stroke David Morehouse's ego instead. Morehouse was able to con his way into controlling hockey operations despite having no experience and displaying absolutely zero ability to be a sound hockey mind. When the dust settles on all this, there will be zero doubt that it was David Morehouse who slammed shut the Penguins' window when he was able to oust Ray Shero and wrested away control of the franchise. The failure will sit entirely on Morehouse's shoulders and those who have enabled him.
Morehouse's incompetence shone through early as he quickly started butchering his job. He hired Jim Rutherford to be the GM despite his long track record of poorly managing the Carolina Hurricanes, presumably because it was safer for Morehouse's job security than if he went for an unknown who actually had the potential to give Pittsburgh what they needed in the position. In Rutherford's tenure the team has sent out a tremendous amount of value, in both players and picks, to finish 8th in the conference and currently sit outside the playoff picture without much to show for it. Despite already seeing in his short tenure talented defenders such as Matt Niskanen, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, and Simon Despres leave the organization, Rutherford did nothing to address a blue line that was badly in need of reinforcements. Only the outstanding play of Marc-Andre Fleury has prevented this from being an even bigger and pressing issue.
Arguably worst of all is Rutherford bungling the coaching search and hiring a head coach who is not only in well over his head but apparently who also doesn't listen to GMJR either. Problem is, when you screw up as badly as hiring Rick Tocchet before the head coach, it limits the possibilities greatly. Anyone competent and deserving of a head coaching job in the NHL is going to be far less interested in the position, and given how badly Tocchet has performed it's no small wonder how this stuck the Penguins with someone who can't handle the job.
It's a coaching staff that continues to play Rob Scuderi despite the fact that he has played his way out of an AHL job at this point in his career. Scuderi hurts the Penguins in pretty much every conceivable facet and there continues to be zero accountability as far as his play is concerned. Daniel Sprong continues to watch from the press box despite Pascal Dupuis clearly needing to take a step back after a terrible stretch of play to begin the season. And it's a team that's not responding well on the ice. The Penguins currently sit 20th with a 48.1 SACF% during 5 on 5 play. The scoring issues have been well documented, but the Pens are 24th in the league in scoring chances with a 48.7 SCF%. And a sobering thought is that the Penguins have needed Marc-Andre Fleury to play some of the best hockey of his career just to sit one point out of the playoff picture.
Given the dysfunction in the front office and the coaching staff, the results on the ice, and the state of the Penguins' farm system and assets, it's only fair to wonder - has the Pens' window closed? It's a conversation that is the elephant in the room, but it's in the room nonetheless. Less than half a season after retooling the forwards the team looks to be in need of retooling the defensemen. Sidney Crosby's slump in the early going has only served to underscore how much the Penguins need their two star centers to both be on top of their games. The same goes for Kris Letang and Olli Maatta on defense, and how badly they need other legitimate top 4 defensemen to help shoulder the load. It's fair to believe that Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle were betting that the days of contending for championships were over for this group when they put the team up for sale this offseason.
The Penguins entered the 2014 offseason needing to make a change, but knowing that they had the pieces to keep the team's championship hopes alive moving forward. In just a year and a half the team just needs to stop the bleeding, but it's much more difficult to see how they bounce back from the recent mismanagement. It will take a series of shrewd moves, correct player usage, and improved played development to help stem the tide, but it's inconceivable to see the current group in charge capable of accomplishing that.