All good teams must eventually fall. While the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins were dominant for the better part of a decade, they eventually had to fall from the top.
It was expected that the Chicago Blackhawks would stop winning championships eventually. Their core group was eventually going to get older, and the depth chart will take a hit when trading away top prospects each year for rentals at the deadline. While fans are not frustrated that the Blackhawks have fallen off the map, they are upset that teams like the Penguins and Bruins have continued to win.
The Pittsburgh Penguins mark the beginning and end of the Blackhawks dynasty. They won the Stanley Cup in 2009, the year before the Blackhawks started their era of success, and they won the two years following Chicago’s last cup in 2015.
While I am not getting into the logistics of which dynasty was more successful, 3 in 6 or back to back cups, I do want to talk about why Pittsburgh has been able to remain in the conversation of best in the league way after Chicago fell off of the map.
Since winning their last championship in 2017, the Penguins have gone 131-78-24 overall for the past three years. They made the playoffs in both 2018 and 2019 and would have made it this past season if it was not for the qualifying round. Pittsburgh has made it out of the first round once since winning their last championship.
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In comparison, Chicago has gone 198-152-48 since winning their last championship in 2015. Chicago has made the playoffs three times; however, one was due to the qualifying round. The Blackhawks have failed to make it out of the first round and have only won four playoff games.
The Penguins might finally be coming down to the Blackhawks level after failing to get out of the qualifying round. However, they still have a good team in their locker room, a lot better than the Blackhawks, which is frustrating because Chicago has had a few extra seasons to try and turn the corner.
So why did the Blackhawks fall before Pittsburgh did? For starters, Pittsburgh did a better job with the contracts they handed out. Pittsburgh has their top two guys in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin locked up for the next few years with a combined salary of only 18.2 million dollars a year. While that does not seem drastically different than what the Blackhawks have going with Toews and Kane, it is a difference-maker.
Chicago has Toews and Kane under contract for the next three years at 21 million combined. While I am not arguing that 10.5 each is not worth Toews and Kane, I would say that having two players with that big of a contract on your team is going to come at a cost. Especially when factoring in a contract like Brent Seabrook‘s.
Crosby and Malkin have found ways to continue to be productive while Toews has fallen off of the map a little from when he first signed his contract extension. Luckily this past year showed Jonathan Toews back at his best. Kane has consistently been the best Blackhawk on the ice and could be worth more than 10.5 million.
Pittsburgh has also done a better job drafting talent than the Blackhawks have. Pittsburgh has added players like Jake Guentzel, Tristan Jarry, and Sam Lafferty all after the first round. They made goaltending a priority even with Marc-Andre Fleury on the roster.
Pittsburgh had two great young goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry in their organization. In contrast, Chicago only had goalies like Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen in their system for the longest time, showing just how much deeper Pittsburgh was at that position.
Hindsight is always clearer when it comes to drafting and contracts, but Pittsburgh made better decisions even in the moment. When Pittsburgh fired their head coach in Mike Johnston, it led to the team pushing for a playoff spot and eventually winning a Stanley Cup under Mike Sullivan.
When Chicago fired their head coach in Joel Quenneville, all that did was lead to a month of losing followed by a mediocre finish of the season. When looking at Pittsburgh’s success, you have to give their GM Jim Rutherford a lot of applause. Rutherford has steered the ship in Pittsburgh in a successful direction since getting the position in June of 2014.
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When looking at Rutherford’s success in Pittsburgh and the moves he has made at the right time to help lead Pittsburgh to the postseason each year, you really have to wonder whether or not Stan Bowman is the right guy for the job in Chicago.