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What is next for the Penguins?

Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is set to begin in the East as the Lightning continue their march toward a three-peat and the Rangers seek revenge against the Hurricanes.

When Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang made their NHL debuts for the Pittsburgh Penguins early in the 2006-07 season, joining a second-year Sidney Crosby, it ushered in a new era of hockey for the franchise.

That era, even in its infancy, carried massive expectations for both the team and the individual players.

They were not just supposed to be good. They were supposed to be great. Crosby was supposed to be The Next One. Malkin was supposed to be a superstar of his own. Letang, as well as recent top picks Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal, were supposed to the foundation of a championship supporting cast.

Given how high the expectations were it seemed almost impossible for all of them to be reached. They not only met them, they may have exceeded them.

Since the start of the 2006-07 season, when Malkin and Letang joined Crosby, the Penguins have objectively been the most successful franchise in the sport. No team has won more regular season games (728), more playoff games (103), scored more goals (3,879) appeared in more Stanley Cup Finals (four), or won more championships (three; Chicago did match that, but nobody has exceeded it).

Individually, Crosby and Malkin have been two of the most productive and best players in the league, combining for four scoring titles, three MVP awards, three Conn Smythe Trophies, and two Rocket Richards. For 16 years they have mostly been unmatched.

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It seems entirely possible that the era came to a close on Sunday night with their Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers.

The Penguins, on top of the NHL for so long, now find themselves at a crossroads. They have lost in the First Round of the playoffs in four consecutive years and now lost five consecutive playoff series going back to the 2018 postseason. Yes, they may have played well enough to win the past two series over the past two years, but they didn’t. And enough flaws started to expose themselves to prevent it.

They now enter an offseason where Malkin, Letang, Bryan Rust (another two-time Stanley Cup champion), Evan Rodrigues, and Rickard Rakell are unrestricted free agents and a fairly new front office (with a new ownership group) has to decide what direction to take them in.

Not everybody is going to be back (the salary cap alone will prevent that, not even getting into decision making) and it is a given that this roster is going to look dramatically different next season.

In terms of the potential free agents, the most damaging loss would 100% be Letang. He is still an elite defenseman and by far their best player at the position. There is no replacement for him on the roster or in free agency, and because of that, he should take priority. But that will not be easy. He is going to be highly sought after and could probably pick his destination and price tag (Montreal?). Losing him would be by far the most devastating blow to the current roster. You can find another No. 2 center. You can replace a second-line winger. There are not many No. 1 defenseman floating around out there for the taking.

Malkin seems like he might be the most likely to return given his relationship with Crosby and their desire to finish their careers together. Plus, I am not sure there is a logical destination for him elsewhere in the league. Of the two, he is the one that has slowed down the most and has the most questions in the short-term, and there are not many teams with the salary cap space to sign him for his market rate. The question is how good is he still, and what sort of impact can he still make?

Rust has developed into an outstanding two-way player, but his price tag is probably going to be significant given the way he has played and produced in recent years and he would be out of his mind to not see what that could turn into on the open market. That is also a contract the Penguins might want to shy away from, even if he is still really good right now.

Rodrigues was a huge surprise this season and would be a fine player to bring back as a jack-of-all-trades. Rakell always seemed like a pure rental, but he, Crosby, and Guentzel had sensational chemistry in their limited ice-time.

[Conn Smythe watch: McDavid, Makar lead after First Round]

Beyond the free agents there are other big decisions to make. Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen are restricted free agents, but neither seem a given to get a qualifying offer. Brian Dumoulin took a huge step backwards this season, never looked right and is entering the final year of his contract. Between him, John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Mike Matheson, they have a quartet of defenders each counting more than $4 million against the salary cap. Do they look to clear some of those out and create more salary cap flexibility?

The biggest question, though, is probably more of a philosophical question than anything related to any individual players or contracts.

Can this team still compete with the potential changes they are facing, or is it time to start a rebuild?

That question is difficult to answer because the team as currently constructed has definitely plateaued, and you can not hide from the recent playoff results. They definitely played well enough to advance in each of the past two seasons, but four first round losses in a row is what it is.

But Crosby is not slowing down, and as long as he is playing the way he is there is still reason to believe you can be a playoff team. Jake Guentzel is also a magnificent player on the wing (one of the best in the league) and there is reason to believe that Tristan Jarry can be an above average starter in goal.

On top of that, they also have a top-tier coach and the whole of its defensive play was far greater than the sum of its parts all season. The three blown leads in Games 5-7 of the playoffs are concerning and not a good look, but by every objective measure this was a playoff-caliber defensive team all season. They are also entering an offseason where they have some salary cap space to play with (and can create even more if they can move out a contract) in an offseason where there are several intriguing free agents.

As long as Crosby and Guentzel are playing at their level you do not want to pull the plug on that and not try to give them a chance.

This era is definitely coming to a close, and next year’s roster is certainly going to look very, very different. We just do not know exactly how different, and what Ron Hextall and Brian Burke think of their chances with those pending changes. Is it re-tool time, or full-blown rebuild? We will find out in the next few weeks and months.