Penguins’ Upcoming Road Trip Will Display a Changing of the Guard

The NHL has split into two camps in terms of the style of play. There are two camps. One is the Anaheim Ducks, and the other is the Los Angeles Kings. These teams are filled with young stars and exciting rookies who will light up the scoreboards almost every day. The newly-drafted cores will be the foundation of the league in the future. These are the teams that have been the center of the league’s success for the past decade. The Pittsburgh Penguins belong to the latter group with a core that’s largely unchanged in nearly two decades. What’s more, the streaking Penguins are currently riding an eight-game winning streak and coming off a long pause due to the league’s COVID-19 holiday shutdown. (from “As COVID-19 Issues Rise Again, NHL Pauses Season” Matt Vensel. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 20/12/2021).

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jeff Carter was recently placed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

After winning a fierce, back-and forth game against San Jose Sharks Jan. 2, the Penguins are well-positioned to head into the western road trip that begins in Dallas Jan. 8. The upcoming games against the Ducks, Kings, Sharks and Golden Knights offer the perfect opportunity to compare the seemingly ever-constant presence of the Penguins to the league’s new order.

Trajectory of Ducks Looks Very Much Like Penguins of Decades Past

The 2021-22 Ducks, when viewed under a microscope, look very much like the Penguins teams that won the Stanley Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-André Fleury, the two forwards and goaltender, who would go on to form the core of the Penguins for more than a decade, absolutely electrified the league during their rookie seasons. Crosby and Malkin had 39 and 33 goals respectively. Fleury was the best netminder in franchise history. Their arrival was widely advertised as the next generation of superstars that would save the struggling franchise.

Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby
Phil Kessel, a former Pittsburgh Penguin, celebrates his win with Sidney Crosby (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar).

The Ducks are on a remarkable similar path to the Sabres, except for the possibility of bankruptcy. The Ducks finished last in their division and were second-tolast in the league. They beat only the lowly Buffalo Sabres. The draft has become the Ducks’ saving grace, as it has given them honest-to-goodness superstars in Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry. Zegras was recently voted the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for December, scoring two goals and adding nine assists in 11 games. Ducks’ goalie John Gibson is thus a Fleury stand-in, as he has been present in the Ducks’ crease since he was drafted in 2011.

Penguins’ Opponents Emblematic of New-Look NHL

Since their arrival, Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins have been the mainstays of the league. However, they have both been active players since the mid-2000s, which unfortunately means they won’t be around forever. As much as hockey fans would love to see them keep going, eventually, they’ll have to hang up their skates just as every other great player has done.

Their upcoming opponents are the future of the league, while the Penguins represent past glory. While the young, exciting rookies may not get a great deal of playing time (if any at all – Anaheim’s Zegras and Los Angeles’ Alex Iafallo and Alex Turcotte recently entered the league’s COVID-19 protocol and other Kings’ top draft pick Quinton Byfield is in the midst of a stint in the American Hockey League), the opponents nonetheless have been galvanized by the rookies, just as the Penguins were all those years ago.

Trevor Zegras Anaheim Ducks
Trevor Zegras and Anaheim Ducks (Photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pens’ first game of the road trip, in Dallas on Jan. 8, will see them take on the Stanley Cup Finalists from two seasons ago and will pit them against some of the best young players in the league. 22-year-old Stars’ defenceman Miro Heiskanen, although only drafted in 2017, already holds the franchise mark for playoff points by a defenceman with 26 and has perpetually entered the Norris Trophy conversation since he received twelve votes in his sophomore season. Forward Denis Gurianov, an elite playoff performer since 2019, has been a constant threat.

Related: 3 Takeaways From Penguins’ Wild Win Over Sharks

The Vegas Golden Knights, the Penguins’ opponent on Jan. 17, can be painted as the team that will define the league’s future. T-Mobile Arena’s vibrant culture is a result of expansion and was further supported by their participation in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Like the revival of Pittsburgh with Crosby-Malkin, so too has the Golden Knights done the same thing for Las Vegas. The franchise captured the league’s attention in the same way.

The Penguins embody everything the NHL has become since the mid-2000s when it welcomed new generational players such as Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Patrick Kane. Although no one wants to admit it, this era is nearing an end, and the Penguins’ upcoming western road trip will pit the NHL’s proven modern greats against the league’s up-and-coming rookies, who represent the future of the sport.