Column: The Pittsburgh Penguins will start to splinter shortly after celebrating second consecutive title
The Pittsburgh Penguins, like the Montreal Canadiens of old, have reached the stage where they can announce that their Stanley Cup parade will follow the same route and everyone will know exactly what that means.
The Penguins’ six-game Cup Final victory over the Nashville Predators made them the first team to win the Cup two seasons in a row in the salary cap era, no small feat. Mario Lemieux, who essentially kept the franchise in Pittsburgh when he bought it out of bankruptcy in 1999, had favored a salary cap and revenue sharing in labor negotiations because he believed a cap would allow the Penguins to compete with deep-pocketed rivals.
“It was important for any small-market team to have the salary cap,” Lemieux said Sunday night on the ice at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena while celebrating the 2-0 victory that clinched the Cup. “You can compete with the Rangers and L.A. and the big markets like Chicago and Detroit.”
But it also takes good scouting, steady development and wise management to build and sustain success in a hard-cap system. The Penguins have benefited from that, notably with general manager Jim Rutherford bringing in a heavy dose of grit that blended well with the team’s considerable skill. After losing Kris Letang to a neck injury they disproved the theory that it’s imperative to have a premier defenseman — think Drew Doughty or Duncan Keith — as a linchpin. The Penguins’ depth and heart were largely overlooked because of their image as a skill team, but those traits proved decisive against the depleted Predators.
“We set out to try to go back to back,” said Sidney Crosby, who won his second straight Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs, following the path Lemieux took in 1991 and 1992. “We knew it was going to be difficult, but I think that’s probably where the most joy comes out of, is just knowing how difficult it is now to go back to back and knowing that we overcame all those things. It’s a pretty special group. I’ll say that.”
Their victory parade will be held Wednesday. Within a few days their group will begin to change as the NHL plunges into an extraordinarily busy summer.
The breakup of the Penguins is imminent because of the upcoming expansion draft that will stock the Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL’s 31st team. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who earned nine of Pittsburgh’s playoff victories but was Matt Murray’s backup in the Stanley Cup Final, reportedly has agreed to waive the no-move clause in his contract for the purposes of the expansion draft. Being able to claim Fleury, a three-time Cup champion, would give instant credibility to the Golden Knights, who must choose one player from each of the other 30 teams. Their picks will be announced June 21 in Las Vegas in conjunction with the league’s annual awards show.
The other 30 teams must choose whether to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters (defensemen and forwards) and one goalie. First- and second-year pros and unsigned draft choices will be exempt and won’t count toward their team’s protected limit. Players who have no-move clauses must be protected, which could pose a problem for many teams.
The Ducks face the possibility of losing one of their promising young defensemen if they have to protect veteran Kevin Bieksa, who has a no-move clause. General manager Bob Murray declined to say whether he had asked Bieksa to waive his no-move clause for the purpose of the expansion draft before Monday’s 2 p.m. Pacific time deadline for teams to ask players to do so. Players have until Friday at 2 p.m. to agree to waive a no-move clause for the purpose of the expansion draft.
Teams will simultaneously submit their protected lists Saturday and the lists will be made public Sunday. After that, Vegas general manager George McPhee and his staff have a 72-hour window to negotiate with unprotected restricted or unrestricted free agents and to make their expansion draft selections.
McPhee can make deals with his peers to skip over (or take) certain players in the expansion draft in exchange for draft picks or prospects, and it’s likely that a flurry of trades will be made. The expansion rules figure to give the Golden Knights better options for their initial roster than the terms in place for the last draft, which added the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild in 2000.
After the expansion draft comes the annual draft, to be held June 23-24 in Chicago. Center Nolan Patrick is expected to be chosen first, but Swiss-born Nico Hischier is close behind. Then the free-agent market will open July 1, as the Penguins gear up toward a third consecutive championship and the rest of the league tries to catch up with them.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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