It feels like they deserved better, right? This team seemed destined for a run. If not that, at least a marathon series that ended in defeat, but left them proud. Instead, they were dealt another embarrassing first round exit. These Penguins battled all year, but their battle and goaltending ran out at the worst time. Despite that, the Penguins overcame so much. They faced injuries to star players, and suffered through offensive droughts and defensive lapses. They battled through it all to win a division that had four legitimate Stanley Cup Contenders. And now they are done, with nothing to show for it. Penguins’ fans ache and major questions loom. I have no answers at the moment. For now, I want to reflect on the up-and-down, roller coaster ride that was the 2021 Penguins season.
Sid’s Still Sid
The captain presses on. The most successful Penguin in NHL history will grace us with another season, and for that I am thankful. He led the team again in all scoring categories, with 24 goals and 62 points in 55 games. But it was his defense that shone throughout the season, highlighted by that magical defensive play to help secure their game 3 victory. He’s a Selke and Hart candidate every season, and there’s no telling how this team would have fared without him. He may not have the same burst and acceleration anymore, but his 200 foot game is complete and dominating. Sid turns 34 before next season, but I believe the greatest player in the game will return with a vengeance. Father time cannot contain Sid the Kid, or should I say, Sid the Grizzled Veteran, now?
Contributions from Unlikely Places
If you had told me a year ago that Cody Ceci, Mike Matheson, Brandon Tanev, and Jeff Carter would be four of the most impactful players on the ‘21 Penguins, I’d have enjoyed a hearty laugh. But now, the Penguins are forced to consider how important their depth pieces are due to the unlikely positive play of guys like Cody Ceci. His defensive pairing with Matheson was arguably their steadiest pairing all season. The defense, while flawed, was a surprising bright spot this season. Without the additions of Ceci and Matheson, this defense would no doubt be worse off. Meanwhile offensively, Brandon Tanev’s contract now looks like an underpayment with how much he brings to this team. And GM Hextall’s deadline deal looks like highway robbery now, as they secured a prominent 3rd line center that counts less than $3 million against the cap. If the Penguins want to succeed next year, they’ll need even more contribution from these depth players.
The Future is Scary, but Bright
It feels hard to accept, but these Penguins are going to compete next year. Changes are inevitable, but there is about a zero percent chance that the core of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang is broken up. Next year could very well be the last hurrah of 15+ years of Penguins excellence, but they have a few important pieces waiting in the wings. Defenseman P.O. Joseph will hopefully be a bigger part of this team next season. He had a thunderous debut and Wilkes-Barre head coach heaped praises on the young d-man for his resilience and improvement. Forward prospects Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare have legitimate NHL potential as their top offensive prospects. If anyone wants to check them out, they are currently teammates for the QMJHL’s Val-d’Or Foreurs playing for the President’s Cup. Game 2 is Saturday, May 29th. The cupboard is bare, admittedly, but there are a few valuable pieces there. I’m hoping one of these players will be a surprising contributor for the 2021-2022 Penguins season.
The conversation naturally shifts: can this team put together one last run? Can an upcoming 35 year old HOF’er, along with two 34 year old elite players lead a team to a Stanley Cup in this modern era of hockey? How will management address their grievous goaltending situation? Questions abound for these Penguins and the answers remain a mystery for another day. Today, we acknowledge and appreciate what we had as we lay to rest the greatness and ugliness that was this 2021 Penguins season.