by PuckStopsHere on 05/27/09 at 03:07 AM ET
With their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes complete, it is clear that the Pittsburgh Penguins are going back to the Stanley Cup finals. This will be their second appearance in the finals in a row. Pittsburgh is a good team that could win the Stanley Cup, but they are not a historically elite team. They lack the necessary but not sufficient conditions that they have an elite goalie. They do have several Hall of Fame track position players.
There is little question that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are forwards on a Hall of Fame track. Although they have not done enough in their careers yet to assure their spot in the Hall, it would take a significant change of their direction for them to not get there someday.
The forward depth beyond those two is clearly less effective. Bill Guerin has been their third highest scorer in the playoffs (with half the points of Crosby or Malkin). He is has had a good career and is doing well to keep it going well into his thirties, but he is no longer an elite player and he is not a Hall of Famer. Their remaining forwards include some good NHL players in Chris Kunitz, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jordan Staal, Maxime Talbot, Matt Cooke and Miroslav Satan but none of them can be seriously considered all stars.
On defence, Sergei Gonchar may be a Hall of Fame tracked player. He has been a very good offensive defenceman for over a decade and has developed some top defensive skills more recently. His value to the Penguins was made clear to them this season when the team struggled (and even looked like they could miss the playoffs) as he missed the beginning of the season due to injury. If Gonchar keeps up his play a few3 more years he could find himself a Hall of Famer. The rest of their defence is made up of depth guys like Mark Eaton, Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik. These are guys who are good at what they do, but do not have a large enough skill set to ever be serious NHL stars. They also have Kris Letang, who might have the tools to become a star one day, but the development past an average level NHL defenceman is still to come.
Having Crosby, Malkin and Gonchar as potential Hall of Fame talent is on the borderline of what a team might need to qualify as an elite team on a historical scale. It is clear that if there is a chink in their armor (i.e. if Gonchar is hurt) they are not a good enough team. The problem of a Gonchar injury is real. He took a knee-on-knee hit from Alexander Ovechkin in round two and is probably playing hurt. A long rest after round three would really help the Penguins if it would help Gonchar to become healthy.
The Penguins do not have an elite goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury has not shown himself to be at that level. He has never had an All Star season in the NHL. He has never been a Vezina candidate. He has never shown a reason to think he is any better than a decent starter in a thirty team league. His .906 saves percentage in the playoffs so far this year does little to put that into question. He is only 24 years old, which allows for the possibility that he still may improve, but he isn’t there yet.
Pittsburgh could win the Stanley Cup this year. They are a good team. In the salary capped NHL, they may be close enough to being an elite team that they become champions. They have three players who are All Star calibre. Two of them (Crosby and Malkin) are clearly on a Hall of Fame track and the third (Gonchar) is certainly a possibility as well. The rest of their roster is depth guys who make solid NHLers, but are not top level players. Their goaltender is included in that bunch. For the Penguins to be elite on any meaningful historic scale, at the very least they need a better goalie. It might be nice to have another all star calibre position player as well. This is their second appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, so they are clearly a team that can succeed in the current NHL. Will they be good enough to win the Stanley Cup this year?
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