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The Penguins are just good enough to not be bad

The Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the Florida Panthers, 3-2, in a shootout at PPG Paints Arena on Friday night.

The loss dropped Pittsburgh to 21-17-7 and six points out of the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. If that all sounds familiar to you, it’s because it was the Penguins’ plight last year, when they sat on the playoff bubble all offseason before it finally burst in the final days. It was the first time the Penguins missed the playoffs since the 2005/2006 season, and it looks like they could miss again in 2023/2024. Then again, maybe Pittsburgh will sneak in.

That’s how it is when you’re a team with just enough talent  to not be horrible, but not enough to be a contender. If you’re a Penguins fan who is also a Steelers fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about, because that’s been their existence for several years.

It was especially that way in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s final days as the face of the franchise. Roethlisberger wasn’t great anymore–he spent almost a whole year on IR, in fact–but his salary caused cap restrictions that prevented Pittsburgh from doing much of anything in free agency to make the team strong enough for one last run with the old gunslinger. Also, Pittsburgh almost always drafted in the 20s. Not necessarily the high-20s, but the low-20s–or the point where you’re usually on the bubble when it comes to making the postseason.

The Steelers were so cap-strapped heading into 2021 that they had no choice but to ask Roethlisberger to take a pay cut and bring him back for one final run. Anyone who knew how to evaluate NFL rosters could see that Pittsburgh didn’t have the horses to run very far in 2021, but what choice did owner Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert have? They didn’t have the resources to sign or trade for a big-name quarterback. The Steelers were selecting 24th that year, and good luck finding a future franchise passer at that point of the draft.

Predictably, the Steelers were a team that spent the entire 2021 season on the playoff bubble and managed to sneak in with a 9-7-1 record. They were then quickly shown the door by the Kansas City Chiefs in the wildcard round.

Back to the Penguins.

They won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. It was the heyday of the core three. I’m talking about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. General manager Jim Rutherford spent a lot of resources in order to give his superstars the best chance for one last run–including trading for forward Phil Kessel in the summer of 2015.

Obviously, it worked out well. Unfortunately, the Penguins lost to the Capitals in the 2018 Eastern Conference semi-finals, thus ending yet another chance for a Stanley Cup three-peat (the Pens also won back-to-back Cups in 1991 and 1992).

Was the run over for the Penguins with the core three as the face of the franchise?

One might not have thought so at the time. Crosby, Malkin and Letang were still in their early ’30s, but that’s pretty darn old in sports, especially when that age represents the top stars on a team. It’s been six years since Pittsburgh won a playoff series, a drought that, again, might sound familiar if you’re also a Steelers fan.

It seemed like the time to move on from the core three (at least part of it) was the offseason prior to the 2022/2023 campaign. Instead, the Penguins re-signed both Malkin and Letang for one more run. It didn’t seem to make any sense, but much like the Steelers in 2021, what choice did the front office have? There were scant resources in the minor leagues thanks to spending the future on the now.

The Penguins were going to ride with their core three. It did make sense from a public relations standpoint. The fans were clamoring for the Cup-winning superstars to stay here, and it’s hard not to listen to the fans–especially when the alternative would have meant a semi-empty PPG Arena on most nights.

There’s no doubt Art II considered the optics when he decided to re-sign Roethlisberger for the 2021 campaign. He wanted to give his franchise quarterback a retirement tour, one where he could go out in style and a packed Heinz Field one last time (2020 saw mostly empty stadiums due to the pandemic).

The Penguins are still popular with the core three, but winning is not. In fact, winning isn’t really expected, at least not the kind of winning Pittsburgh used to do. Now, instead of competing for supremacy in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins hope to compete for one of the two wildcard spots in the Eastern Conference. Instead of positioning themselves with a premium seed, Pittsburgh just hopes for any seed at all.

Kyle Dubas, the Penguins current president and general manager, made one last gasp at a Stanley Cup run when he acquired Erik Karlsson in an offseason trade with the San Jose Sharks. The hope was that Karlsson, one of the best offensive-defensemen of all time and perhaps the greatest powerplay quarterback of his era, would make the Penguins a contender once more.

Sadly, the Penguins still have one of the worst powerplays in the NHL, and the only time Karlsson is noticed is when he makes a mistake on defense–which is a lot of the time, due to his style of play.

I’m no hockey expert, but I could see this coming. The Penguins are a super-top-heavy team. They don’t have many notable role players. They don’t have elite goaltending. Other than the core three, they have Jake Guentzel, a premium goal-scorer who is approaching 30 and free agency. With Karlsson now in the mix, the Penguins have the look of a fantasy hockey team. In other words, they look good on paper, but they melt on the ice.

In conclusion, the Penguins are too good not to be bad, but not good enough to actually be good. They’ll likely sit on the playoff bubble for the remainder of the 2023/2024 regular season. Will they get in? If they do, it will be by the skin of their teeth. Will they do any damage once they get there? Probably not.

Much like with the Steelers–even without Roethlisberger–you can expect the same thing to happen again next season.

The mushy middle might give you hope as a fan, but that’s all it gives you.

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