It was seven years ago, to the day, that the Pittsburgh Penguins had last won the Stanley Cup when they held it high on Sunday night.
And while they may have worn the same logo, and had a handful of familiar faces, the group that won this time has precious little in common with that one.
That Penguins team in 2009 was filled with veterans, with 35-year-old Sergei Gonchar their No. 1 defenceman and 37-year-old Bill Guerin logging big minutes up front. Hal Gill, Miro Satan, Mark Eaton, Petr Sykora, Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis rounded out those in the 30-and-over club, the experienced core supporting the superstar kids that the franchise had drafted after the ugly bankruptcy and lottery years.
Back then, Sidney Crosby really was still a kid – just 21 – and Evgeni Malkin was only 22. Marc-Andre Fleury was the hero in goal, and Kris Letang was a depth player, getting the fifth-most ice time on the blueline.
Watching them hoist the Cup on Sunday, it was clear what was different. Crosby has been aged by all of the on-ice wars and his words are more measured. Malkin spoke eloquently – in English – and excitedly about the birth of his son. Crosby posed for pictures with Letang and his little one.
The fresh faces this time belonged to Olli Maatta, Matt Murray, Brian Dumoulin, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, the surprisingly effective and underrated supporting cast to the superstar vets.
The way the Penguins won this time was different too. This wasn't Dan Bylsma hockey – long pass from the D, quick transition and grind for pucks. It looked a little more like the Chicago Blackhawks teams that have been so successful in winning three of the past seven Stanley Cups: speed and finesse throughout the lineup, a cripplingly aggressive push in the neutral zone and on lost offensive zone faceoffs, and remarkable support for the defencemen from the forwards.
Pittsburgh's not a big team. They gave up an inch in height and 10 pounds on average to San Jose, but what was more noticeable was how easily the Penguins outmanoeuvred them. What's the use in being bigger if you rarely have the puck, which was the frustrating, debilitating situation that the Sharks found themselves in basically all series?
A lot of the credit should go to Mike Sullivan, the coach. The up-tempo, unrelenting style that he picked up – in part – from his one season in Chicago as their development coach last year changed everything for the Penguins, who went from a listless team without an identity to one of the best attacking clubs in the league in short order.
The transformation had a dramatic effect on their ability to control games. Under former coach Mike Johnston, the Penguins were 21st in the NHL in possession at 48.4 per cent over the first 28 games of the season. After Sullivan was hired, that jumped to 55.4 per cent – second-highest in the league and the best in the Eastern Conference by a wide margin.
Most teams that have managed that kind of territorial play have won Cups in recent years, led by Chicago and Los Angeles.
But it wasn't just possession that shifted. Phil Kessel started scoring, becoming one of the most dangerous players in the league on one of the most dangerous lines in the game with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. Crosby started scoring too, at basically a 50-goal pace over the second half of the season to rejoin the league leaders. Letang had better than a point a game, from the blueline, after the all-star break.
Murray, meanwhile, started to play a little more, and it became clear that the young netminder could challenge Fleury for the crease if needed. (It was.)
It was a combination few teams could handle. Only Anaheim had a better record over the season's final 40 games. The Penguins were five points better in that span than even Washington, the eventual Presidents' Trophy winners who they punted in Round 2.
The most curious thing about Pittsburgh's dominance was how they were built. In the playoffs, it was an untested rookie in goal, a no-name blueline (other than Letang) and a loaded group of forwards that included three of the NHL's top 10 scorers in the past five years on three different lines.
No recent championship team has looked quite like it.
Nearly two-thirds of their salary-cap space was ultimately dedicated to forwards, including 35 per cent to Malkin, Crosby and Kessel alone. GM Jim Rutherford kept finding ways to wedge more talent in under the $71.4-million ceiling, adding Bonino, Hagelin, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz through a variety of deals after betting big on Kessel already.
The NHL is a copycat league, now more than ever. When the Anaheim Ducks won with a big, bruising team in 2007, it ushered back in an era of tough hockey, with a spike in fighting and emphasis on shot-blocking and size on D.
Now it appears the Blackhawks are the model, with far more of a premium on skating ability and puckhandling over size and strength. We're seeing that at the draft, and with teams like Tampa Bay, one of the other rising contenders that is very small and skilled up front.
One reason is the focus on analytics and possession has placed a premium on passing and stickhandling, especially as it relates to zone exits and entries.
Another is that positioning has become paramount in modern defensive systems, and in order to get into those positions and defend effectively against the world's top players, speed is a must.
"Sullivan has sold them on support and outnumbering the opposition," explained Brad Werenka, a former Penguins defenceman who now runs analytics firm TruPerformanceHockey.com. "When defending the rush, they almost always have two forwards backchecking.
"Speed helps them do that better than most teams. They blanket the opposition and the puck with three players – and the other two are very close. If a D gets beat, the support is very close to quickly defuse things."
The system is vital, which means the coach is too. The truly old-school types are being phased out quickly. But the other keys to success for the Penguins included (a) extremely high end offensive talent and dedicating a lot of salary to that talent, (b) low-cost, skilled options that could eat minutes and complement the stars and (c) emphasizing speed and skill with the puck in all situations.
The NHL has already trended this way in the salary-cap era. There are nearly double the number of defencemen under six feet tall than there were a decade ago. But you can also expect to see the idea of having three skilled scoring lines catch on in a bigger way, and a cheap fourth line used to eat defensive zone faceoffs. The match-up problems Pittsburgh was able to create having Crosby, Malkin and Kessel split up were a huge part of this Cup win.
The other lesson is the value in having a talented backup, a position that many teams still seem to place little emphasis on around the league.
Over all, the Penguins winning the Cup is a positive for the NHL. They have a team that plays an entertaining brand of hockey and commits to star power in a big way. They take advantage of the more wide-open game and give oodles of ice to players like Letang, who aren't afraid to take chances to create offence, as he did on the game-winning goal on Sunday.
What will be interesting is if Pittsburgh is able to continue to build on this championship. It's never easy to keep a Cup-winning roster together, and they're very close to the cap for next season. They face losing depth players Matt Cullen, Ben Lovejoy and Schultz as free agents, barring moving others out. (Schultz is restricted.)
The Penguins have also spent years trading draft picks and other futures to remain in win-now mode so restocking their cheap young depth options in the coming years won't be easy. The good news is Rutherford has proved to have a deft touch with trades, and he has some pieces to move, beginning with Fleury, as the Penguins can't protect both goalies from a likely expansion draft next summer.
The veteran GM may also be able to lean more on younger players like Dumoulin, Sheary and Rust, who were all revelations in bigger minutes as the season wore on.
If the Penguins can reload while still maintaining a similar mix of versatile depth and high-end talent, it's possible this team can remain a contender for as long as Crosby, Malkin and Letang are elite players.
Their window remains open for a few more years, anyway.
How the Penguins were built:
Draft picks: Marc-Andre Fleury (2003), Evgeni Malkin (2004), Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang (2005), Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl (2010), Olli Maatta and Matt Murray (2012).
Trades: Chris Kunitz (2009), Brian Dumoulin (2012), Patric Hornqvist (2014), Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole (2015), Carl Hagelin and Justin Schultz (2016).
Free agency: Conor Sheary (2014), Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr (2015)