Pittsburgh Penguins' 16-season NHL playoff streak ends: Why it happened

The Pittsburgh Penguins made the playoffs in Sidney Crosby's second season in 2006-07 and put together a tremendous 16-season run to hold the longest active postseason streak in North American major professional sports.

They reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, won it all in 2009, then won back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017. And they looked to extend their postseason run after getting team-friendly deals to keep the core together this past offseason.

Despite a so-so season, the Penguins controlled their playoff fate this week, needing to beat two of the league's worst teams to claim a wild-card spot. But they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday and they were eliminated from playoff contention when the New York Islanders beat the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.

With the Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators also missing the playoffs, the longest active NHL playoff streaks belong to the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. Both clubs extended their streaks to seven seasons by punching their postseason tickets this year.

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will be home when the NHL playoffs begin.
Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will be home when the NHL playoffs begin.

Why did the Pittsburgh Penguins' playoff streak end?  

Salary cap woes

The Penguins kept the Big 3 together, signing center Evgeni Malkin (four years, $24.6 million) and defenseman Kris Letang (six years, $36.6 million) in the offseason to play alongside Crosby, who has three years left at a $8.7 million cap hit. They also traded for defenseman Jeff Petry ($6.25 million cap hit).

Those moves kept the Penguins close to the cap limit all season. They traded John Marino for Ty Smith on the same day as the Petry trade, but had to keep Smith in the American Hockey League for all but nine games.

The cap woes tied GM Ron Hextall's hands until close to the deadline.

Lack of production from bottom-six forwards

Crosby (91 points) and the rest of the top six are doing their jobs, particularly Malkin, who has played every game after several injury-filled seasons and has 83 points. But Jeff Carter is the leading scorer among the bottom six with 29 points. Brock McGinn had 16 points and Teddy Blueger had 10 points before they were traded.

Moves that didn't work out

Hextall re-signed Carter to a two-year, $6.25 million contract after a 45-point season in 2021-22. He has had two lengthy goal droughts this season and will be 39 when the deal ends. Because Carter is on an over-35 contract, the Penguins won't get a break if they buy him out.

The Penguins gave a qualifying offer to Kasperi Kapanen after a 32-point season in which he was often scratched. He filed for salary arbitration and signed a two-year, $6.4 million contract, with the same cap hit as last season. He was a healthy scratch early in the season and had 20 points in 43 games before he was waived and claimed by the St. Louis Blues.

Injuries and other absences

Letang has missed 18 games in a rough season. He had the second stroke of his career, plus dealt with a lower-body injury and the death of his father. Defensemen Jan Rutta and Petry missed 25 and 21 games, respectively, and Marcus Pettersson hasn't played since March 18. No. 1 goaltender Tristan Jarry missed 17 games with injuries.

Too little, too late

Hextall made his moves right before the deadline. Kapanen, McGinn and Blueger left, and Mikael Granlund, Nick Bonino and Dmitry Kulikov arrived. But Granlund has five points in 20 games, not to mention a $5 million cap hit with one season left. Bonino is out indefinitely with a lacerated kidney and Kulikov has missed the last 14 games.

The Penguins have gone only 9-9-1 since the trade deadline.

What's next?

The Penguins, who have won one playoff round since their last Stanley Cup title, likely will evaluate the future of Hextall. This season will be weighed against some strong moves in his tenure, such as acquiring and signing Rickard Rakell and getting both Malkin and Letang re-signed when many thought that wouldn't be possible.

Pending unrestricted free agent Jason Zucker could get a new contract after a strong season. Pittsburgh must make decisions on pending UFAs Jarry, Brian Dumoulin, Kulikov, Danton Heinen and Josh Archibald. Jarry will be a tough decision because the two-time All-Star is frequently injured.

The Penguins will also need to add depth at forward and on defense to get back to the playoffs.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Penguins' playoff streak ends as Islanders lock up final spot in East