The National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins might not be a huge brand, but no American team outside the Original Six has won more Stanley Cups. Twice they have won it back to back, and they have been home to some of the greatest NHL players of the last forty years.
Pittsburgh joined the NHL in 1967, when the league doubled in size from 6 to 12 teams. The other teams that joined the league that season were the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues – none have been as successful overall. The Penguins name was picked by “the fans” in part because the nickname of the arena they were to play in was the Igloo. The team now plays in the modern PPG Paints Arena, and the Pens in the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference with the rivals Flyers and Washington Capitals.
The Penguins had a little bit of success early on, though it was not hard making the playoffs in the small 12 team league. However, their fortunes really turned when they drafted center Mario Lemieux and ultimately paired him with Jaromir Jagr. Those two Hall of Famers (Lemieux 2000 and Jagr a shoe-in once he reaches eligibility) eventually won two Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992.
Mario Lemieux was the top pick in the 1984 draft and one the most prolific players in the history of the NHL. Though a giant on the ice at 6’4, he had incredible speed and a grace to his game. Jagr joined the team in 1990 and even though he was a critical component in those back to back titles in the early 1990s, he really became a leading figure for Pittsburgh as Lemieux’s game faded a bit due to age an injury.
Lemieux is considered by many to be the second best player ever to lace up skates (after Wayne Gretzky). He struggled with injuries but also battled cancer during his playing career. Lemieux is actually one of the current owners of the team, as money he was owed by the franchise was ultimately converted to equity in the team. The primary owner of the team is Ron Burkle, but Lemieux remains one of the faces of the franchise.
A generation later, the Penguins struck draft lottery gold once again, landing the first overall pick in the 2005 after the NHL lockout in 2004-2005. They used this select to draft consensus #1 prospect and generational talent Sidney Crosby, who fulfilled expectations and has become of the most decorated players of the current generation. The year before they had selected center Evgeni Malkin with the number two pick and both players are Hall of Fame locks.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was the top selection before that and that trio was the core of the team through their championships in 2009, 2016 and 2017. The Penguins eventually moved on from Fleury between the pipes and even though current lead netminder Matt Murray played a role on that second title team, the Penguins have not been able to make it back to the Finals since.
Former player Mike Sullivan is the current coach. He actually took over midseason in 2016 and led them to the Cup, following that up with another championship. The general manager is Jim Rutherford, known as one of the more aggressive GMs in the league as he searches to find the right combination of players to support Crosby and Malkin, while they are still among the best players in the game.
The team has not missed the playoffs in several seasons, but they have also not made it past the second round since their last title. How they get over the hump with much of the salary cap tied to their veteran stars is the challenge. These days, a winning strategy is maximizing those players whose value exceeds their contracts. Pittsburgh is not in that situation and has their work cut out for them, though they will always have a chance with Sid and Geno.