The Pittsburgh Penguins tried to put off a youth movement as long as they could. Now it’s here

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, left, stands behind his bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals in Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 7, 2024. The Capitals won 6-0. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, left, stands behind his bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals in Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 7, 2024. The Capitals won 6-0. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sidney Crosby has seen a lot during his nearly two decades in the NHL. Championships. Scoring titles. MVPs.

Not since his rookie season 18 years ago, however, has the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins captain seen this: his team likely relegated to spoiler as it plays out the string, the familiar faces he’s relied on for so long disappearing one by one.

“It’s a new experience for sure,” Crosby said Thursday night after a lifeless 6-0 home loss to Washington.

As Crosby spoke, Jake Guentzel’s nameplate was still above the stall next to Crosby’s in Pittsburgh’s dressing room. By Friday morning, it was gone.

So was Guentzel.

The franchise’s ninth all-time leading goal scorer was shipped to Metropolitan Division rival Carolina overnight in exchange for forward Michael Bunting and a handful of prospects as Penguins general manager/director of hockey operations Kyle Dubas shifted the focus from trying to help the NHL’s oldest roster make one last postseason run to a long overdue youth movement.

Asked if there’s a chance Pittsburgh — which enters the weekend in 12th place in the 16-team Eastern Conference — can somehow find a way to challenge for a playoff spot without one of the last remaining members of the group that won the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup in 2018, Crosby shrugged.

“I hope,” Crosby said. “I mean, that would be great.”

Crosby’s words projected optimism. His tone did not. Call it the residue of nearly 20 years spent chasing — and occasionally grabbing — his sport’s biggest prize.

One of the most competitive players in the league is putting together one of the best seasons by a 36-year-old in NHL history. Yet his 32 goals and trademark relentlessness haven’t been enough to overcome an inept power play and a roster that struggles to do the one thing that has defined the Penguins — from Mario Lemieux to Jaromir Jagr to the two-headed monster of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — for so long: score goals.

Six months after saying he was confident his team could prove the doubters wrong, Dubas instead finds himself trying to thread a needle that former league powers Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles could not by attempting to rebuild around his franchise icons without bottoming out.

To do it, he’ll need buy-in from Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang. Crosby, who is eligible for an extension this summer, has no plans on asking for a chance to move on. The same goes for Letang, who has four years left on his deal, and Malkin, nearing the halfway point of the four-year contract he signed in the summer of 2022.

“I want to stay here, you know?” Malkin said Friday. “If I wanted to change teams, I probably would have changed two years ago. Again, this is my home, second home, you know? Any situation, I’m most happy here. I’ve had injuries. Now, it’s a tough situation. I want to be here.”

The short-term challenge, however, will be finding the energy to put up a fight during a daunting closing stretch that begins with back-to-back games over the weekend against Boston and Edmonton.

The Penguins hardly looked engaged against Washington, perhaps distracted with the trade talks around Guentzel heating up. Letang lamented his team had “no energy, no passion, nothing. As a group, we didn’t show up.”

Something that has rarely happened during the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era. Entering this season, Pittsburgh had played exactly one game since the fall of 2006 when it was eliminated from playoff contention, and that came during last year’s regular-season finale against Columbus.

That number could tick up significantly this time around as a club that has been built to win now for almost the entirety of Crosby’s career finds itself at a painful crossroads.

There are still 21 games to go. Yet the exhibition-like nature of a sloppy win over Columbus on Tuesday and the no-show against the Capitals on Thursday gives off vibes of a team that’s ready for summer to get here.

Malkin acknowledged something needs to be done to change the mood in the room. Winning would help. Victories, however, have been in short supply over the last month, one of the main reasons Dubas made a decision he acknowledged was unpopular to those inside and outside the organization.

“It can be lonely and a lot of people can be upset at you as it goes along,” Dubas said.

It comes with the job. So does finding a way to move on with a beloved teammate now playing somewhere else and a quarter of the schedule still to go.

It will be a challenging ask. Crosby sat quietly at his stall on Friday. Letang, too. A few feet away, Malkin tried to sound upbeat, perhaps espousing forward Bryan Rust’s suggestion to take a “fake it until you make it” approach to turning things around.

“Maybe a couple (of) new guys give us energy, who knows, you know?” Malkin said. “Maybe now after the trade deadline, not feel pressure anymore and maybe a little bit more relaxed and play better, everybody play better. Who knows? We still believe we have, not big chance, but we still believe we have a chance to make the playoffs.”

Even if they know they might be the only ones.

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