TAMPA, Fla. — Kris Letang was just a 22-year-old kid when he first hoisted the Stanley Cup. On the ice that night in 2009, he saw the world’s best player, Sidney Crosby. He saw another superstar in Evgeni Malkin. He saw a limitless future.
The next season, the Penguins lost in the second round. The next two seasons, the first round. Then a conference final run before another second-round exit, followed by another first-round exit. The window was closing. The primes of two all-time greats were about to be squandered. The Penguins were one-hit wonders.
Well, two years later, Letang has two more Stanley Cups. So he understands how the Blackhawks core feels right now. And he’s proof that you can retool on the fly. That you can get back on top without bottoming out.
“Obviously, with the talent they have with Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook — you don’t want to waste those years,” Letang said. “But sometimes you have to take a step back to see what the problem is, then try to surround those guys with the right players. They’ve got to find a way to be a great team again, because they have too much talent, and that great leadership.”
The Hawks aren’t the first team to get old in a hurry. All-Star weekend in Tampa is filled with guys who reached the pinnacle of their sport at a young age, fought through some doubts and some difficult seasons, and got back on top. And none of them had three Cups to soothe them during those trying seasons, either.
Brad Marchand’s Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, his first full season in the NHL, and reached the Final in 2013, losing to the Hawks. They’ve won one playoff round since, and missed the playoffs entirely in 2015 and 2016.
But now, with Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask surrounded by exciting young talent such as David Pastrnak (21), Charlie McAvoy (20) and Danton Heinen (22), the Bruins are on a remarkable 18-game point streak, genuine contenders once again.
“It’s tough to be a top team in this league every year,” Marchand said. “Even with the core group they have, every team is continually changing. But it can be tough when you don’t win the way that you would like to, or you’re expected to. Especially with the team they have. There’s a lot of pressure that goes with that.”
Boston, like Chicago, isn’t a city famous for its patience.
“No, you’re expected to win, and if you don’t, you hear about it,” Marchand said with a laugh. “It can be tough, but that’s part of the game.”
Anze Kopitar and the Los Angeles Kings traded Stanley Cups with the Hawks for four years, each winning two between 2012 and 2015. Then, like in Pittsburgh and Boston, the bottom fell out. Since winning their second Cup in 2014, the Kings have won just one playoff game, missing out in 2015 and 2017. Kopitar is 30, a year older than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, so he has felt the same sense of unease that the Hawks have been dealing with this season, that uncertainty about whether it’s all downhill from here.
Unlike the Penguins and Bruins — and the Hawks — the Kings haven’t gotten much younger. They’re still led by Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. But barely a month ago, they were at the top of the Western Conference standings, re-energized by new coach John Stevens. They’ve since fallen to the edge of the wild-card picture, but the hope and optimism that was lost the last three seasons is back.
“Those years are never fun,” Kopitar said. “At some point, you just have to look at the bigger picture, which is not very fun. But you’ve got to do it, because you know that’s the right thing to do. I’m happy we’re out of that phase now.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that the Penguins, Bruins and Kings all fired their Stanley Cup-winning head coach during those down years — something the Hawks aren’t quite ready to do with Joel Quenneville. Still, the Hawks have been retooling on the fly all season. They’ve gone from the oldest team in the league to one of the youngest, with youngsters such as Alex DeBrincat (20), Nick Schmaltz (21) and Anthony Duclair (22) playing top-six roles. Veterans such as Patrick Sharp and Lance Bouma are getting bumped by the likes of Tomas Jurco (25) and David Kampf (23). Three of the top-six defensemen are 25 or younger.
It’s basically Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and a bunch of kids. When tanking for draft picks isn’t an option, that’s the only way — a path forged by the Penguins and Bruins before them.
“I don’t think anyone’s necessarily happy with what’s gone on this year and where we’re at right now,” said Kane, who estimated the Hawks have to go 23-10 down the stretch just to make the playoffs. “But it’s the position we’re in. So let’s do something about it and get ourselves out of it. You see the same success by some teams in this league. You look at L.A., they’ve missed the playoffs a couple times and they’ve found ways to be at the top of the standings and still be a feared team in this league. You think about that stuff, and you think about where we’re at, and hopefully we can turn it around quickly.”
It can happen. And if you ask those who’ve done it before, it’s even more satisfying to get back to the top of the mountain after you’ve been knocked off.
“This league is not about only a couple of teams anymore,” Letang said. “The whole league is hard. It’s hard to get into the playoffs. It just shows you that even if you have early success in your career, or for a couple of years, you don’t take that for granted. Because it’s hard to win.”
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