NEW YORK – For each and every road game this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have one of their own team doctors in tow. With a roster this valuable and this prone to serious injuries, they obviously want all their medical angles covered by someone they trust.
Because here’s the thing with the Penguins: As good as they’ve been the past couple of seasons despite long stretches without their best players, they’re downright scary when everyone is healthy. Case in point, there were stretches during their 6-3 win over the New York Rangers Sunday night when you might have been convinced you were watching a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals game.
With a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, which the Penguins hope they’ll have in 2013 for the first time in about two years, it’s easy to have visions of Stanley Cups dancing in your head. But with the kind of depth the Penguins boast at every position, it becomes something that’s expected. And it will be for a long time. The Stanley Cup window for most teams doesn’t stay open more than a couple of years, but with a cast of core players in their mid-20s, the Penguins figure to be fixtures as serious contenders for at least another decade. Crosby, 40-goal scorer James Neal and rising Norris candidate Kris Letang are just 25. Malkin is 26, Brandon Sutter is 23 and, if goaltending history is any indication, 28-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury could be entering the most productive years of his career.
So how does an organization manage expectations when both the immediate and long-term futures look so retina-burning bright? You don’t, according to Penguins GM Ray Shero, who sees that sort of thing as just a bunch of white noise.
“It doesn’t mean a goddamn thing to me,” Shero said. “I don’t think as a group, as a team, as a coaching staff, we ever look at expectations. It’s just somebody’s opinion. I don’t think our group pays any attention to it. If someone says the Rangers are the favorite to win the Cup, does it bother our group? It doesn’t bother them at all.”
Plus, it’s easy to carry the weight of expectation around when you’ve already accomplished so much with what you have. This is not an upstart here. It’s a group of players that is experienced far beyond its collective age and the ones who haven’t been at the top of their craft are on their way there. With Malkin’s talent and the kind of chemistry he has with Neal, it’s easy to envision the latter as a future winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy. And as far as Letang is concerned, he was well on his way to making a run for the Norris last season before he was injured.
“He’s definitely got all the tools to be one of those guys,” Crosby said of Letang. “You look at a guy like (2011-12 Norris winner Erik) Karlsson and they look pretty similar out there, the way they skate and handle the puck. He’s right there, but we don’t want to put too much pressure on him.”
There is little doubt Letang and his game have matured in the past couple of seasons. Not only has Letang refined his play at both ends of the ice, he has developed into a reliable, minute-munching defenseman who can play in all situations. The reason he could top 25 minutes a game this season for the first time in his career is because the Penguins know they can rely on him to carry a heavy load and play the most difficult minutes, whether defending a lead or playing shorthanded.
“He’s strong and he has to be one of the best skaters in the league,” Shero said. “And he takes his defensive game seriously. He’s a guy, you watch him below the hashmarks, he’s a prick. And that’s good for us.”
You get the sense that the Penguins will be a prick in the balloon of many teams’ playoff hopes this season. And for a good number of years to come.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.