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Foreseeable future looks bright for Penguins

After several changes, Pittsburgh set up to be consistent contender

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Sidney Crosby knows all too well how difficult it is to win the Stanley Cup, let alone repeat.

His first four years in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins' trajectory was upward: They missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs, lost in the Eastern Conference First Round, made the Stanley Cup Final and won the Stanley Cup. They seemed like a dynasty in the making. 

Then they ran into a hot goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, and were upset by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the second round. Then Crosby suffered a concussion and didn't play when the Penguins lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.

Then …

Well, it took seven years, a general manager change, two coaching changes and many player moves before the Penguins won the Cup again with a 3-1 victory against the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on Sunday.

"I have a greater appreciation this time around," Crosby said. "At a young age, going back to back [to the Cup Final] like we did, you just think it's going to be an annual thing. With the core we have, you think everyone's going to stay together, the team's not going to change.

"But it does. That's kind of the reality of playing hockey. There's turnover, things change, guys move on, different coaches. There's so much change. So many different things need to happen. You need to have some luck along the way."

Video: Impact of Sidney Crosby in Game 6

No question. No team has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, and now the NHL has the salary cap, making it even more difficult. Nothing is guaranteed.

But the Penguins have become the third team to win the Cup multiple times since the salary cap was introduced in 2005-06, joining the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015) and Los Angeles Kings (2012, 2014), and they seem poised to keep competing for the Cup for the foreseeable future.

Of the 25 players who appeared for the Penguins in the playoffs this year, all but two are 32 or younger. All but six are in their 20s, including their best players: Crosby and forward Phil Kessel, who are 28; and defenseman Kris Letang and center Evgeni Malkin, who are 29.

"We don't have an older team," Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. "We have a relatively young team."

Three players who appeared for the Penguins in the playoffs this year are pending unrestricted free agents, and they are forward Matt Cullen, 39; defenseman Ben Lovejoy, 32; and third-string goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, 29. Two are pending restricted free agents: forward Beau Bennett, 24, and defenseman Justin Schultz, 25. So the Penguins should not have to replace major pieces or deal with salary-cap headaches.

Coach Mike Sullivan established a strong identity of speed and skill after he took over Dec. 12, and if he got the players to buy in to win the Cup, you'd think he would have little trouble getting them to buy in to try to win it again. They saw it worked once; they'll believe it can work twice.

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm6: Sullivan talks about Pens' journey

Sullivan has strong assistants in Jacques Martin and Rick Tocchet, and the Penguins have strong player development coaches in Sergei Gonchar and Mark Recchi, not to mention assistant general manager Bill Guerin, a mentor to the players.

"We've put a pretty good organization together," team president David Morehouse said. "We do have the capacity to get here once or twice again in the near future. But I'll never take it for granted like I did in '09, I can tell you that."

Among the main questions:

Do owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux sell the team? Does the Cup make them reconsider or cash out while the value is high? If they do sell, does new ownership change anything?

"I don't have any comment," Lemieux said. "Ron and I still own the team, and we're happy where we are."

Does Rutherford return as GM? Does he hand off to associate GM Jason Botterill or someone else?

Rutherford, 67, originally expected to serve for two or three years and mentor Botterill, who he said then was "getting very close" to being ready to be a GM.

Does goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury return after sitting behind rookie Matt Murray for most of the playoffs?

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm6: Murray preserves lead with pad stop

Fleury, 31, helped the Penguins win the Cup in 2009, helped them make the playoffs this season and is popular with his teammates. But he carries a $5.75 million salary-cap charge over the next three seasons, and Murray, 22, just tied the rookie record for playoff wins with 15 and helped them win the Cup.

Can the young players like Murray, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary continue to perform at the high level they did this season after coming up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League?

"You know how this thing works," Rutherford said as the celebration wound down on the ice Sunday night. "You've got to get the breaks at the right time. You have to be healthy. So I'm not going to be a fortune-teller here. I know we have a good team tonight. We'll have a good team next year. We'll see where it goes."

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