Final chance

Pens, Caps make moves to remain Cup contenders

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) talks with Washington Capitals right wing Tom Wilson (43) during the second period of a game on Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. After lengthy playoff streaks ended, the Penguins and Capitals are making moves to get back in the mix now. AP Photo

The Stanley Cup banners hanging in Pittsburgh and Washington aren’t collecting dust yet. The Penguins won their third, fourth and fifth championships in 2009, 2016 and 2017, while the Capitals hoisted the Cup for the first time in franchise history in 2018.

Still, the core players from those title-winning teams aren’t getting any younger: Sidney Crosby celebrated his 36th birthday Monday and Alex Ovechkin turns 38 next month. The Penguins’ 16-year playoff streak and the Capitals’ eight-year playoff streak ended last season.

The moves made this summer show both teams are willing to sacrifice some future success to keep winning now. Pittsburgh over the weekend traded several players and two high draft picks to land Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, a deal that came on the heels of Washington signing power forward Tom Wilson to a seven-year contract extension.

New Penguins general manager Kyle Dubas and longtime Capitals GM Brian MacLellan are trying to jam open their teams’ contending window as long as possible — a difficult task in the NHL in the salary cap era.

“It is challenging,” MacLellan said. “We got some young guys that are still coming, but our goal is to remain competitive. I think it’s a tricky balance, but we’ll see if we can pull it off. I think it’s important for Ovi, for all our veteran guys that we remain competitive, give them a chance to compete.”

In replacing Ron Hextall and Brian Burke — they were fired after Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006 — Dubas took a big swing at upgrading immediately by getting Karlsson from San Jose. Perhaps more significant than what he gave up is the $10 million annually the Penguins have committed to the 33-year-old Swede over the next four seasons.

Dubas isn’t worried about sending a message to veteran leaders like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang or coach Mike Sullivan. But it speaks volumes about the direction the team is going in, with no sign of a rebuild in sight.

“I think it’s just the affirmation that we believe that they have a chance to contend and compete for a championship, and there’s a lot of work that has to be done,” Dubas said. “Obviously, the team missed the playoffs last year and there’s no dancing around it and we’ve tried to supplement as best we can.”

MacLellan, unlike Hextall, sold at the trade deadline when it was clear Washington was likely to miss the playoffs. He, too, has tried to supplement the core that remains from the Cup run, signing winger Max Pacioretty and trading for defenseman Joel Edmundson.

Pacioretty turns 35 in November and Edmundson is 30 — the same age Wilson will be when his new $45.5 million contract kicks in for the 2024-25 season. Nicklas Backstrom is nearing 36, T.J. Oshie turns 37 in December and John Carlson 34 in December.

The Capitals think that experience can be a benefit in trying to get back into the playoffs.

“There’s a lot of winners in that room, and when you don’t make the playoffs, it’s a failure,” Wilson said. “We’re hungry, we’re excited to get back at it and get this thing moving back in the right direction.”

The timeline is clear. Ovechkin is signed for three more years and is in hot pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record, currently 75 behind a mark that long seemed impossible to approach.

Wilson’s deal carries him four years beyond Ovechkin with the expectation he’ll become the face of the franchise and succeed his longtime Russian teammate as captain. But it also locks him in at a $6.5 million cap hit through 2026 to contribute to the Gretzky chase and perhaps another playoff run or two.

“We’re going to keep pushing,” Wilson said. “A good team and a team that’s winning games means he’s scoring goals, and we’re checking both those boxes at the same time.”

The Penguins, with Malkin 37 and Letang 36 like Crosby, are determined to win enough games to remain a perennial playoff team. That’s no easy task in the Metropolitan Division trying to keep up with Carolina, New Jersey and the New York Rangers and in the Eastern Conference with young Buffalo and Detroit among the teams on the rise.

Getting Karlsson should be a boost, at least in the short term, as Dubas tries to silence the doubters who don’t think Pittsburgh can remain in the Stanley Cup mix.

“We have to go out and prove it,” he said. “I think the doubts are fair. I think the criticisms are fair. Now we have our belief, and then it’s about us to go and execute it.”


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