Although the champagne is only beginning to dry on the Penguins’ jerseys, it’s time to talk legacies. The Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era has now brought three Stanley Cup championships to Pittsburgh and the NHL’s first back-to-back title team in two decades. What we’ve witnessed is an impressive run for any team in any era, let alone in the age parity and the salary cap.
It’s hard to think of a more iconic hockey duo than Crosby and Malkin.
However, those in the dad-plus demo — fans in the age bracket of Matt Cullen, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz and older — might see that meme on their desktop computer, say “Hold my beer” (completely unaware that is also a meme) and then write up an email forward explaining why it’s Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr who are actually Pittsburgh’s greatest hockey duo of all-time.
So which is it? Crosby and Malkin or Lemieux and Jagr? The new guys or the two old guys (one of which just so happens to still be playing at a high level)? Let’s break it down.
Crosby and Malkin have the edge 3-2 in Cups, which counts for a lot in these kind of #debates. Both duos were able to go back-to-back, with the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings as the only other franchise capable of doing so in the past 25 years of NHL hockey — a quarter century that has been book-ended by Penguins dominance. And even though these new Penguins lost the 2008 Cup Final to Detroit before winning in ’09, simply making it to the final round two years in a row twice is pretty impressive and deserves extra credit.
At the same time, the Lemieux-Jagr Penguins brought Pittsburgh its first Stanley Cup in franchise history, a massive accomplishment. And then there are the five Conn Smythe trophies that Lemieux, Malkin and Crosby have between them.
The verdict: Both the Lemieux-Jagr era Pens and these Crosby-Malkin Penguins produced an impressive trophy haul, and Pittsburgh is unbelievably fortunate to have experienced them both.
In eight trips to the postseason:
- Lemieux played 107 games and tallied 172 points.
- Jagr played in 130 postseason games in a Penguins jersey and put up 147 points.
- In a lower-scoring era, Crosby has 164 points in 148 playoff games over 10 consecutive postseason trips.
- Malkin has put up 157 points in 149 games over the same time period.
The verdict: While Lemieux and Jagr scored more points per game, adjusted for the current dead-puck era, it’s hard to say which duo did better in this category. What we can say is that both combos were outstanding and Pittsburgh has been blessed to get to see all four players perform in their primes.
The Supporting Casts
Hockey isn’t basketball. Two guys can’t win a championship on their own. However, it can say a lot about a player’s dominance and superiority if he is able to pull a second-rate group of teammates to a championship.
The Lemieux-Jagr Penguins won with some very talented teammates in Paul Coffey, Mark Recchi, Joe Mullen, Bryan Trottier, Larry Murphy, Kevin Stevens, John Cullen, Ron Francis and Rick Tocchet. They also won their Cups under two different coaches and had to get big contributions from both Tom Barrasso and Frank Pietrangelo in net.
Crosby and Malkin have also had some impressive talent around them in Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, Jake Guentzel, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz, as well as Sergei Gonchar on the ’09 team. They’ve also won Cups under two different coaches and, in Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, relied on outstanding play from two goalies to win the Cup.
The verdict: We’ll call it a tie in this category. While Lemieux and Jagr had several Hall of Famers at their disposal, Crosby and Malkin likely have a few future inductees around them, too. Either way, Pittsburgh has been incredibly lucky to be able to watch so many great players over the years.
The Missed Opportunities
When judging the entirety of a player’s legacy, you have to weigh both the good and the bad. The year after going back-to-back, the Lemieux-Jagr Penguins were heavy favorites to win three in a row — especially after putting up a 56-21-7 record in the regular season and posting an NHL record 17-game win streak right before the playoffs started. So to lose in the second round in overtime of a Game 7 to the New York Islanders was a huge letdown. Back injuries then likely robbed Lemieux of a few more Cups.
The Crosby-Malkin-era Penguins have their own missed opportunities. In the 2013 playoffs, the Penguins were heavy favorites after adding Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, closing out the regular season on a 23-4 run, and breezing through the first two rounds of the playoffs. So getting swept by the Boston Bruins in the conference finals, and scoring only two goals in four games, was a huge letdown. Head injuries also likely robbed Crosby of a few more Cups.
The verdict: Both eras had very similar kinds of disappointment. But those disappointments have only made everyone appreciate the historic successes all the more. #blessed
Lemieux saved hockey in Pittsburgh when he arrived and adding the dynamic Jagr to the roster took the sport to a whole new level in the city. It’s not fair to judge Crosby against Lemieux’s post-playing career, at least not yet, but the identity that Crosby and Malkin have forged in Pittsburgh as players is every bit as iconic as what Lemieux and Jagr had in the ’90s. It’s why Pittsburgh has gone from a city in which you might struggle to find a street hockey game 30 years ago to one that now churns out NHL players.
The verdict: Yeah, both have been great.
So which duo wins after all of this #analysis and evaluation? No hot take here. You pick which one you prefer. Or don’t. I’m just happy Pittsburgh has had them both. Let this portrait hang over the mantle in every home in the city for all of time.