Has the NEW Pittsburgh Penguins dynasty begun? [Plus: A Penguins History Lesson]

With four seasons of just atrocious hockey, many hockey fans may have forgotten what a powerhouse team the Pittsburgh Penguins were during the ’90s. From 1988-2001, only three players won the Art Ross Trophy. Mario Lemieux 6 times (3 times back-to-back), Jaromir Jagr 5 times (including 4 straight) and Wayne Gretzky 3 times (once back-to-back). With the exceptions of Mario’s first win (’88) and Wayne’s last win (’94), none of those teams ever failed to reach the playoffs when their team sported the NHL’s leading scorer. Iginla broke that trend with Calgary the following year in ’02, but Foppa got back on track with the Aves after, followed by St. Louis and his Cup-winning Lightning, with Joe Thornton and Sidney Crosby having followed suit.
Few sane people would deny that having the League’s top scoring player on your team is a recipe for success.

So where does that leave the Penguins, who, with Malkin, have the potential to have back-to-back different Art Ross Trophy winners, and 13 of the past 19 said Trophies?

Also inside, Sergei Gonchar sets an active record with his eighth consecutive 50+ point season with a goal in last night’s victory over the Habs. [What an exciting game by the way!] And, a Penguins and Art Ross Trophy history lesson.

Are the Penguins truly the real deal many people speculated they would become after winning out on Crosby? If Malkin wins the Art Ross, and if the Penguins win the Cup this year, does it signal the beginning of a new “dynasty”? The first “dynasty” since the Red Wings? [Or the first real dynasty since the Oilers. See my post-script note.] Even if they don’t win the Cup, do they have the makings of what will one day soon be the next NHL’s dynasty?

I suppose one must ask if it is even possible to have a dynasty in the “new NHL.”

A Penguins (and Art Ross Trophy) History Lesson: [to skip the lesson scroll down]
Lemieux won the Trophy back in ’88, but the Pens failed to make the playoffs. The following season he won again and the Pens won their first round of playoff hockey in 10 years. The season after, Mario was again leading the NHL, but a herniated disc kept him out of 21 games, and by a single point, the Penguins failed to make the playoffs. Wayne went on to win the Art Ross. Mario then missed 50 games recovering from surgery, but he returned at the end of the season and Super Mario scored 44 points in 23 postseason games to lead the Penguins to their first Cup. Though back problems sidelined him for 13 games the following season, he won his third scoring title, with 131 points (in 64 games). In the playoffs, he suffered a broken left hand from a slash by the New York Rangers’ Adam Graves, but he returned after missing just five games to lead the Penguins to another Stanley Cup, sweeping Chicago in the final. He scored five game-winning goals among his 34 points and won his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy (an NHL record and distinction he shares with only the Flyers’ Bernie Parent).

In 1992, Mario had 104 points in 40 games… think about that for a moment… disgusting… there was the possibility he could break Gretzky’s record of 92 goals and 215 points. But that’s when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Most of us old enough remember his courageous return and sickening scoring pace, and how he led the Penguins on an NHL-record 17-game winning streak (which still holds up today). Despite playing only 60 games, he won his fourth Art Ross Trophy with 160 points. That year’s team was considered by many to be one of the best NHL teams to ever lace ’em up. However, their three-peat would be quelled by a massive upset by the Islanders. In reality, it signaled the end of the Penguins “dynasty”.

Mario sat out 3/4th of the next season, where despite Gretzky’s efforts and last Art Ross Trophy, the Kings failed to reach the playoffs. Mario then sat out again, signaling the start of the Jagr era, with his first Art Ross Trophy win. Mario would win two more straight, then retire, leading Jagr to win 4 straight (his last coming in 2001 with the return of The Magnificent One).

After the loss to the Islanders, the Penguins managed to reach the Conference Finals only twice, never reaching the Finals again. They won a few first round matchups, and their division a few times, the last time coming in the NE in 1998. They were then moved to the Atlantic division, and no other team aside from the Flyers and Devils have won that division since the Rangers did so back with their Cup-winning team in 1994.

So now we finally come back to the present day.

Last year, the Penguins had the fourth biggest points turnaround in NHL history, with the Art Ross, Pearson, Hart and Calder Trophy winners. Not to mention two defensemen in the Top 6 of NHL scoring among defensemen, with Sergei Gonchar in 2nd, two points shy of Niedermayer, and the youngest starting goalie who tied for 3rd in the NHL with 40 wins. This year, Sergei Gonchar is again in 2nd place among defensemen, and with the injury to Lidstrom, he has the possibility to take the scoring title among defensemen. Whitney has slumped a bit, but a recent hot streak has brought him into 17th place (despite missing a few games to injury). Only Detroit and Montreal join Pittsburgh with two defensemen in the Top 20 for defensive scoring, with more than 30 points each.

This is also Gonchar’s eighth season in a row with 50 or more points, the longest active streak among defensemen. Anaheim’s Chris Pronger is closing in on his fourth in a row. Toronto’s Bryan McCabe has three in a row, but has missed a lot of games this season and isn’t close to 50 points. Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer has three in a row, but also hasn’t played enough games to seem to be able to reach 50 points this season.

The Penguins also sport the NHL’s best goalie (based on SV%), with a 16-4-3 record, an NHL-leading 0.932SV% and 5th in GAA in a goal-heavy East with 2.18 (2nd best in the East after Brodeur’s 2.17). The Pens face the dilemma of what to do with the return from injury of 1st overall draft pick Marc-Andre Fleury. The likely move will see Dany Sabourin being sent down to the AHL, despite his one-way contract, and keeping Ty Conklin up, despite his two-way contract. As for the playoffs, the Penguins still think Fleury is their future, and will undoubtedly give him the green light to start the playoffs, only pulling him in favour of Conklin if he has a horrendous outing.

But most importantly, having scored 20 goals and recording 41 points over his past 22 games, with 30 points (12 goals and 18 assists) in the 15 games since Sidney Crosby’s injury and his return to his natural position at center, with a prodigious 24 points in his last 10 games, Evgeni Malkin is looking to win the Art Ross Trophy (and possible Hart if his lead his big enough and/or Ovechkin’s Capitals fail to make the playoffs). This would be the first time since Mario and Jagr did it (twice) that two players from the same team won back-to-back Art Ross Trophies. Definitely, a good sign for any hockey club. [The other teams to do so since 1947-48 were the Bruins’ Esposito and Orr, the Black Hawks’ Mikita and Hull, the Canadiens’ Beliveau and Geoffrion and the Wings’ Lindsay and Howe.]

Can the Penguins finally break the Flyers/Devils hold on the Atlantic division title? Last year, the Penguins came within 3 points of tying the Devils for the title. This year, they have been neck and neck all season, and currently have identical records (wins, losses, points)…With the imminent return of last season’s MVP and Leading Scorer and team captain Sidney Crosby, will the Penguins be an even better team and take the entire Eastern Conference? Or will the return of Crosby ruin Malkin’s limelight? If I had to bet, I’d say the Penguins would only get better with Crosby’s return, but that Malkin would likely see slightly less time and his production (by the way, third in the NH
L after Crosby and Spezza) would slip slightly. Regardless, I predict an Art Ross Trophy for Malkin, and a possible Hart Trophy to boot. Though right now I still think Ovechkin gets the edge due to publicity and the fact that Malkin has been overshadowed by Crosby.

All in all, are we finally seeing the beginning of a new dynasty? Do the Penguins have what it takes? And for Penguins fans: are you as damned excited as I am about the future of this team?

PS. Officially, the 1983-84 to 1989-90 Edmonton Oilers were the NHL’s last dynasty. I use the term above very loosely since the rapid expansion of the NHL in the ’90s. I’m not sure if a mere two Cups for the Penguins is enough to dub them as such, but I would put the Red Wings and Devils (and maybe the Aves and Pens pre-2001) as “elite” teams over the past couple decades. In the “new NHL” I think any team that manages to win back-to-back Cups and/or 3 of 6 should be considered a “dynasty”.