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Turnover and the Stanley Cup Champions: Part 4

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The look back at turnover from Stanley Cup champions and lessons that might be drawn for the Caps examines an old and bitter rival.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We have looked at turnover among the three Stanley Cup champions after the 2004-2005 lockout. All have been, to a degree, less than familiar to Washington Capitals fans. Not so with the fourth team looked at in this review, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Stanley Cup champions in 2009. So, what does their turnover between their Cup-clinching win and their season opener for the 2010-2011 season have to teach about Capitals turnover since their 2018 Stanley Cup win?

2009 Champion: Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins are generally thought of as one of the elite franchises in the NHL today. It was not always such. Entering the league in the 1967-1968 season in the first wave of expansion from the “Original Six” franchises, the Penguins di d not win 30 games in a season until the 1972-1973 season and did not finish over .500 in standings points until the 1974-1975 season. In their first 15 seasons they reached the playoffs nine times but won only three series. And then things got worse.

In 1982-1983 and 1983-1984 the Pens won a total of 34 games (tied for fewest in the league with the New Jersey Devils over that span) and lost 111 games, most in the league. In 1983-1984 they did not win more than two games in a row at any point in the season and went 3-17-1 in their last 21 games in perhaps their best effort of the season – to tank the regular season to earn the first round pick in the 1984 draft. And there, a strategy was born. The Penguins selected Mario Lemieux with that first round pick, and the Pens would be Stanley Cup champions seven years later, in 1991, following that up with a Stanley Cup in 1992. While the Pens did not win another Cup in that period, those two Cup wins set off a run of 11 straight years in which they reached the postseason.

That run came to an end in 2001-2002 when Lemieux, who sustained a variety of injuries and illnesses over his career, and had already retired once, was limited to 24 games in his second season back from retirement. That set off three straight seasons in which the Pens failed to reach the postseason, and there were rumors of a potential move as a result of poor performance (last in the league in standings points) and weak attendance (the Penguins were last in the league in average attendance in 2003-2004, the year before the 2004-2005 lockout).

But lightning struck a second time. Benefitting from arcane lottery rules governing drafting order in the 2005 entry draft, the Penguins won the grand prize, a chance to choose another generational talent at the top of the draft – Sidney Crosby. Even that, however, would not stymie consideration of a move to Kansas City.

But on the ice the Penguins, with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (drafted second overall in the previous draft, behind Alex Ovechkin, taken by the Capitals) providing elite skill and strength down the middle, fortunes improved. Pittsburgh missed the postseason in Crosby’s first season, 2005-2006, but made the playoffs in 2006-2007. They lost in the first round that year, but they advanced to the Stanley Cup final in 2008, losing to the Detroit Red Wings, before beating the Wings in a 2008 rematch for the third Cup in franchise history.

Pittsburgh finished the following season with a better regular season mark (47-28-7/101 points) than they had in winning the Cup in 2008-2009 (45-28-9/99 points), but they were stopped by Montreal in seven games in the second round of the playoffs. The Penguins would remain a strong team heading into the 2010-2011 opener, but they had the bad taste of an early playoff exit to deal with. Here is how that 2009 Cup-clinching lineup compared with the 2010-2011 season opener:

Outgoing

The lineup that opened the 2010-2011 season for Pittsburgh was significantly retooled from the one that clinched the Cup in 2009. Eight of the 18 skaters from that Cup-clinching lineup were out for the 2010-2011 opener, seven having left the team. Half of the missing players were defenseman, all of whom were out of the organization by the start of the 2010-2011 season:

  • Hal Gill was signed as a free agent by Montreal in July 2009
  • Rob Scuderi was signed as a free agent by Los Angeles in July 2009
  • Mark Eaton was signed as a free agent by the New York Islanders in July 2010
  • Sergei Gonchar was signed as a free agent by Ottawa in July 2010

Three forwards also departed:

  • Mirolslav Satan signed as a free agent with Boston in January 2010
  • Ruslan Fedotenko was signed as a free agent by the New York Rangers in October 2010
  • Bill Guerin retired at the start of the 2010-2011 season

Center Jordan Staal was still with the organization, but he missed the entire 2010 portion of the 2010-2011 season with foot and hand injuries.

Incoming

The players new to the 2010-2011 Opening Night lineup arrived in Pittsburgh by a variety of means. Among the defensemen, Derek Engelland had been with the team since arriving as a free agent from Calgary in July 2007 but had not skated for the parent club in Pittsburgh until getting nine games of work in 2009-2010, his first NHL action. Alex Gologoski was drafted by the Penguins in 2004 (second round) but only got his first action with the Pens in 2007-2008. He did play in two games in the Pens’ run to the Cup in 2009 but not the Cup clincher. Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek arrived from other organizations, Martin as a free agent in July 2010 from New Jersey and Michalek as a free agent from Phoenix (now Arizona) in July 2010.

Likewise with the four forwards new to the club for th3 2010-2011 opener, there were home-grown and import aspects to the arrivals. Mark Letestu was signed by the Pens as an undrafted free agent in March 2007 and did not reach the NHL until getting ten games of work in 2009-2010. Eric Tangradi was not purely a home-grown player, having been drafted by Anaheim in 2007 (second round). But less than two years later in February 2009, while still an amateur, he was traded to the Pens with forward Chris Kunitz for defenseman Ryan Whitney. Mike Comrie was a well-traveled player by the time he arrived in Pittsburgh. Drafted by Edmonton in 1999 (third round), he played for the Oilers, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Ottawa, the New York Islanders, returned to Ottawa, and returned to Edmonton before making his way to Pittsburgh in September 2010 as a free agent. It would be his last stop, his career cut short due to a hip injury that forced his retirement in February 2012. Mike Rupp was another well-traveled sort who was a first round pick of the Islanders (ninth overall) in 1998 and then, as a re-entry draft eligible, drafted in the third round in 2000 by New Jersey. After breaking into the NHL with the Devils, Rupp moved to Phoenix, Columbus, and back to New Jersey before being signed by the Penguins as a free agent in July 2009.

COMPARISON

Age

The Penguins were not neither especially old when the clinched the Cup in 2009, nor were they particularly young. The average among the 18 skaters was 28.2 years of age. What they did evidence was a group of players at each of the ends of the age spectrum. There was the young core of Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy, and Jordan Staal all of them 22 or younger when the Pens lifted the Cup in 2009. But it was also a team with four players 33 years of age or older – Hal Gill (33), Sergei Gonchar (34), Bill Guerin (38), and Miroslav Satan (34).

The players who would be retained from the Cup-clinching lineup for the 2010-2011 opener was a rather young group on average – 25.7 years of age for the ten skaters. Only Craig Adams (31) and Matt Cooke (30) had reached their 30th birthdays on the night the Penguins won the Cup.

It is worth noting that the players who departed from that Cup-clinching lineup, the four defensemen and four forwards, averaged 31.3 years of age. Of that group, seven were 30 or older, with only Jordan Staal, injured for the 2010-2011 season opener but still in the organization, under 30 (20 years old on the night the Cup was won in 2009).

The Penguins did replace that aging group with younger personnel. Of the eight new players to the lineup in the 2010-2011 opener, only Mike Rupp and Mike Comrie reached their 30th birthday by the start of the season (Rupp turned 31 in January). Defensemen Martin (29), Engelland (28), and Michalek (28) were in their chronological prime, while Letestu (25), Goligoski (25), and Tangradi (21) were in their formative years. As a group, those eight players averaged 27.1 years of age, a cut of more than four years on average from the players they replaced on the night Pittsburgh won the Cup.

The Caps likely to return of the 2019-2020 opener were a bit older (26.5 years of age on average) when they won the Cup than were the returning Pens when they won theirs (25.7), the difference is not particularly significant. The bigger difference is in the respective incoming groups, the Caps at 29.2 years of age for five skaters (note: this does not include acquisitions this summer), the Pens 27.1 years of age for eight skaters.

Production

Given that there was so much turnover among the skaters from the 2009 Cup-clinching lineup to the 2010-2012 Opening Night lineup, having 65.6 percent of the goal scoring among the 18 Cup-winning skaters is a rather substantial number (13.9 goals per player). The departing eight players, with as many defensemen among that group as there were, took with them 73 goals (9.1 per player), a smaller (if expectedly so) share of production.

Of the ten players who would return, it is hardly surprising that the most productive of the ten skaters were Crosby (33 regular season goals) and Malkin (35), the pair accounting for almost half (45.9 percent) of the goal total among returning skaters. Seven of the ten had double-digit goal totals, and of the three who did not, defenseman Brooks Orpik was not generally thought of as a prolific contributor in the offensive end (in 17 career seasons he never recorded more than three goals in a season), and both Adams and Kunitz had limited action (nine and 20 games that season) contributing to the low totals.

Both the 2009 Pens and the 2018 Caps experienced considerable turnover a season removed from their respective Cup wins. The Caps are likely to return 12 skaters from the 2018 Cup winning lineup, a group that had a higher share of total goals from the Cup winning lineup (76.6 percent to 65.6 percent) and higher average goals per returning player (16.3 to 13.9). But while there was considerable turnover for both teams from their Cup to the season opener two seasons later, each team retained an elite corps of producers.

Goalies

Marc-Andre Fleury was something of an oddity in the 2003 Entry Draft. Leaving aside the circumstances by which Pittsburgh obtained the number one overall pick from the Florida Panthers to select Fleury (sending a first and a second round pick, plus forward Mikael Samuelsson for this pick and a third round pick), Fleury was the only goaltender selected in the first round. He was the only netminder selected in the first 50 overall picks (Corey Crawford was taken in the second round, 52nd overall, by the Chicago Blackhawks).

Befitting a number one overall pick and one who was taken by a team needing an upgrade at the position, it did not take Fleury long to reach the top of the depth chart. He appeared in 21 games in 2003-2004, and following the dark 2004-2005 season, he appeared in a majority of the Penguins’ games in 2005-2006 (50 of 82). The following year, in 2007-2008 at age 22, he won 40 games for the first time in his career. A combination of injuries and surprisingly effective play by Ty Conklin limited him to 35 appearances in 2007-2008, but in 2008-2009 he rebounded to post 35 wins on a club that would reach the Stanley Cup final for a second straight season.

The odd part of his 2009 trip to the postseason that ended in a Stanley Cup win was that he had worse personal numbers than he had in the 2008 postseason, when he and his Penguins reached the final and fell short. His goals against average was up significantly (2.61 versus 1.97 in 2008), his save percentage was down quite a bit (from .933 to .908), and he failed to post a shutout in 24 appearances after earning three in 20 appearances in 2008.

He would remain the Penguins’ number one netminder for several more seasons, including starting the season opener of the 2010-2011 season. One might have thought the 2009 Cup would be the first of several for Fleury as a number one netminder, his having won that first one at age 24. However, while he was a member of two more Stanley Cup winners with the Pens, in 2016 and 2017, he was not the number one goaltender for either of them, that job ultimately falling to Matt Murray. In fact, his postseason numbers as a Penguin were very mediocre in eight postseasons with the club after his Stanley Cup turn: 64 starts, a 31-33 win-loss record, 2.79 goals against average, .903 save percentage, although he did have seven shutouts.

It is a mirror profile from that of Braden Holtby in one respect, Holtby having endured much early career frustration as he performed well – spectacularly in some instances – without reward until the Caps won in 2018. However, that 2018 Stanley Cup win was not a vintage Holtby postseason, and in this respect his experience parallels Fleury’s. In what was his sixth playoff season as a Capital, Holtby did win more than ten games for the first time (all 16 Caps wins), but he was on the bench in favor of Philipp Grubauer to start the playoffs, his goals against average in the 23 games in which he did play (2.16), while very good, was only his fourth-best in those six seasons. His save percentage was also very good (.922), but it was only fifth-best among those first six postseasons. For Fleury and Holtby, the Stanley Cup was part of a longer journey with their respective teams in the postseason, although neither had to be at the very top of their respective games (based on performance standards they set) to win the prize. Very good sufficed behind strong teams.

Overall, here are the returnees from the 2009 Cup-clinching game for the Penguins returning for the 2010-2011 season opener compared to likely returnees from the Caps’ 2008 Cup-clincher for the upcoming season:

CONCLUSIONS

The Penguins and Capitals have been one of the league’s most hotly contested rivalries since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were drafted first overall in consecutive drafts in 2004 and 2005. While their journeys have taken parallel courses, intersecting from time to time in the postseason, their experiences have been somewhat mirror images of one another. Pittsburgh rode a young core to a Stanley Cup four seasons after the 2004-2005 lockout and preserved that core when the club opened their 2010-2011 season. But it was insufficient to replicate their success in 2009. They would lose in the first round of the 2011 postseason and would not return to a Cup final until 2016, when they won the first of consecutive championships.

The Caps were often the victim of that early Penguin success. The Caps would reverse the formula in 2018, sending the Penguins home on their way to their own Cup with a core that had gone through much disappointment in its early career postseason experience. For our purposes here, the Penguins retained an elite core of players but could not replicate their Stanley Cup success for some years to come in light of significant turnover elsewhere. The challenge for the Caps is whether this club, having won a Cup with a more mature club than the Pens had in 2009, can find the magic sooner than did the Penguins having experienced a considerable measure of turnover of their own.