For the last decade, two teams have dominated the NHL, winning a combined six Stanley Cups between them since 2009. The Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins are the closest the NHL has to modern-day dynasties. The Blackhawks won their three Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015 while the Penguins won theirs in 2009, 2016 and 2017.
Now, going into 2018-19, things don’t look as sweet as they did at the start of the decade for either the Blackhawks or Penguins. Which team, if either, has the best chance to win their fourth Cup and truly cement themselves as the one and only NHL dynasty of the last 10 years?
Blackhawks: Room for Creativity and Hope in Youth
The Blackhawks missed the playoffs altogether this season, the first time that has happened since 2007-08. The previous two seasons, they were ousted in the first round by the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. Just where do the Blackhawks go from here to get back to the glory of 2015 and before?
The team will have around $10 million in salary cap space this summer if the projections of an $80-$82 million dollar salary cap for next season prove true. While not a colossal amount, $10 million and some creative trades could offer general manager Stan Bowman the opportunity to add to a defensive core that underperformed this year.
The Devils’ Damon Severson has been suggested as one option, especially since his cap hit would only be $4.16 million. The problem, though, is that he’s not an unrestricted free agent until 2022-23, making it unlikely the Devils would entertain a trade for the 23-year-old and his 5-year contract without a huge return.
The Blackhawks already have some exciting young players, including rookie Alex DeBrincat, who scored 28 goals and 24 assists for 52 points this season, sophomore Nick Schmaltz who had 21 goals and 31 assists for 52 points and Vinnie Hinostroza who had seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points. They also have others developing with their AHL affiliate in Rockford.
With the Rockford Ice Hogs, just eliminated in the AHL Conference Final by Texas on Monday, are forwards John Hayden, David Kampf and Victor Ejdsell who add to the Blackhawks’ future depth and who played a few games with the big club to close the season.
Penguins: Aging Stars, Big Contracts & Fewer Prospects
Alexander Ovechkin finally broke his Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby jinx when the Caps beat the Pens in a playoff series a few weeks ago. The Penguins bid to three-peat as champions fell short and now it seems the superstar core of the team may struggle to reach their past high level. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang will start next season on the wrong side of 30. How many years will the Pens big guns have left in them to compete for the Cup?
Also, Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Hornqvist, among others, are tied up with large, long-term contracts, most expiring at the earliest by 2021 or 2022. In fact, the Penguins only have two impending UFAs in Carter Rowney and backup goalie Casey DeSmith.
In terms of promising youth in Pittsburgh, there is one standout in Wilkes-Barre Scranton, Daniel Sprong. Sprong scored 32 goals and 33 assists in 65 AHL games this season and even played eight games with the Pens before being sent back down. Other than Sprong though, the prospect pipeline is a little patchy. Many of the other notable prospects like Teddy Blueger, Jordy Bellerive or Andrey Pedan, have yet to play in the NHL. More promise and experience is needed from the Penguins youth.
Picks and prospects have been traded away for names like Kessel and Derick Brassard and although the Brassard trade is still relatively fresh (this February), it hasn’t worked out yet, as he tallied only three goals and five assists since joining the club and he struggled to produce in the playoffs. The cost to win now affects the future.
One Last Cup From the Superstars?
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks’ core during their Cup victories, are all 30-years-old and above. Well, Kane is 29 but will be 30 in November. Do these players, like the Penguins, have the drive and gas to squeeze out one more Cup? They may have a better chance than Pittsburgh, only because of the added and exciting youth on the team that’s still coming.
The Hawks will also be more rested than in previous seasons going into 2018-19, but, again, the exciting thing for the aging veterans is that the added depth and youth will shake things up and make things happen. Nick Schmaltz played center with Kane on the wing toward the end of last season and other call-ups, like Kampf, centered a line with Patrick Sharp (since retired).
If this mix of youth and veteran presence can gel, the Blackhawks could be exciting to watch next season and make a push for the playoffs. And as we know once the playoffs start anything can happen. Youth mixed with the Cup-winning core really is the best hope for Chicago’s chances, at this point a better chance than the seemingly stagnant Penguins.
For the Penguins, how much more can you get from Crosby, Malkin and the other star core on the team? They looked tired and, at times, slow in the six-game series against the Capitals, which brings to mind how the Blackhawks looked after their recent playoff exits.
There was the Cup hangover and they were slow to the puck. Goaltender Matt Murray’s playoff hot streak finally ran out after a so-so season. Also, the Penguins would need to move some bodies to free up space for change. Apparently, Kessel is unhappy with where coach Mike Sullivan’s positions him in the lineup. Maybe he’ll be moved, though that’s far from certain.
The dream scenario for NHL fans curious about this debate would be for the Blackhawks and DeBrincat, Toews and co. to mix well and maybe meet Sid, Gino and Kessel in the Cup Final next season for one last push. Then we’ll really see who is the best of the last decade.