After the Penguins paraded the Stanley Cup through the streets of Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby took it to his hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, Evgeni Malkin to Moscow and Phil Kessel to a children’s hospital in Toronto as part of the summer-long celebration.
If there’s one thing champions in the NHL have learned, it is to savor those moments because history says they won’t happen back-to-back. No team has repeated as Cup champion since the salary-cap era began in 2005, and the last back-to-back winners were the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
Sorry, Penguins. And sorry to the San Jose Sharks, as no team in the past eight seasons has lost in the final and gotten back the next year.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are rested from an unusually short spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning boast the deepest team in the league and the Washington Capitals are virtually unchanged after dominating the regular season. All those things, plus playing into June, stack the odds against the Penguins raising the Cup again in 2017.
”You’re coming off such a high, it’s going to be tough to get to that (level) right away,” Pittsburg defenseman Trevor Daley said. ”How you become a great team in this league is you have the hunger every night. Teams that are proven winners are usually the great teams, the L.A.s and Chicagos. Pittsburgh is right up there now in that conversation. We’re hungry to do it again.”
Because they have two top goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are perhaps the best positioned team to repeat in recent history. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.
Online sportsbook Bovada set the Penguins and Blackhawks as co-Cup favorites with the Capitals, Lightning, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Sharks not far behind. It wouldn’t be a surprise if any of those teams make it through a World Cup of Hockey-condensed regular season and a grueling division playoff format and get to celebrate in June.
”The parity in the league allows for a lot of teams to have the same goal and actually legitimately have a chance at it,” said Washington winger Justin Williams, who won the Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014. ”There’s a handful of teams that have those aspirations and they’re real.”
Rather than parity, commissioner Gary Bettman prefers the term ”competitive balance,” which speaks not only to the lack of repeat champions and the death of NHL dynasties but the variance in playoff teams. Of the 30 teams, 24 have made the playoffs at least once over the past three seasons.
”Unless you’re (cheering for) the team in the dynasty market, you could care less,” Bettman said. ”All you care about is that your team is competitive.”
Competition isn’t the problem. It’s so high that playoff teams can’t miss a beat or fear they’ll drop out. The Florida Panthers look like a team just beginning a run of playoff appearances with young stars like Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov, but president of hockey operations Dale Tallon knows it’ll come down to breaks and injuries because ”it’s going to be a battle to return to the playoffs.”
It’s a battle because the top teams haven’t lost much.
The Penguins made a few tweaks and will be without Cup-winner Murray to start the season, but they can turn to 2009 winner Fleury and still lean heavily on Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. Elsewhere in the East, the Lightning re-signed Steven Stamkos, the Capitals are primed for another run with Alex Ovechkin and Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, and the Montreal Canadiens should be back in contention with all-world goalie Carey Price healthy after missing most of last season with a knee injury.
Chicago has cycled pieces in and out while winning the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, but the core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith is as strong as ever. The Blackhawks would have liked to go deeper in last year’s playoffs, but not doing so could pay dividends this season as it has in the past.
”It might be good for the guys to have a longer offseason and come back hungry for the start of the season,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said.
Trading off years with the Boston Bruins’ 2011 championship mixed in, the Blackhawks and Kings know all too well about the Cup hangover that the Penguins will try to avoid. Peaking at playoff time and maintaining that level amid injuries and bounces takes a lot, plus the system is skewed against back-to-back champions.
”It’s more hard than before when teams were really dominating and could spend so much on salaries and they can buy different players,” said Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa, who lost in the final in 2008 with Pittsburgh and 2009 with Detroit before winning three times with Chicago. ”In this modern day, it’s extremely hard. … It’s really, really hard to repeat.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh and AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage in Toronto contributed to this report.
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