PITTSBURGH (AP)The scene was mundane only in its familiarity.
Sidney Crosby working just off to the side of the net. Kris Letang circling the point. Evgeni Malkin coiled in the right circle. The whistle from a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins coaching staff the only thing breaking the silence.
Ignore the rest of the players on the ice – some of whom were in elementary school the first time the core that’s defined one of the NHL’s marquee franchises for the better part of two decades took the ice together – and it could have been 2009. Or 2013. Or 2017. Or really, pretty much at any other point since Oct. 16, 2006, when Malkin, Crosby and Letang lost to Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils 2-1 in an arena that long ago became a parking lot.
They were kids then. Letang and Crosby, just 19. Malkin, all of 20. They didn’t know what they were getting into. The bond they created has withstood various coaches, general managers, health scares as well as the fiscal realities of the salary cap era.
When the Penguins open the season on Thursday night against Arizona, Crosby, Letang and Malkin will begin their 17th year together, tying the run of New York Yankees stars Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera as the longest-tenured trio of teammates in major North American professional sports history.
It’s rarified air, a milestone – for a few anxious days over the summer anyway – it appeared they wouldn’t reach with Letang and Malkin potentially poised to hit free agency.
Malkin agreed to a four-year deal just hours before hitting the market, a signing created in part by Letang’s decision spread out his $36 million contract over six years instead of four, freeing up enough cap space to make sure Malkin stuck around.
”It’s something special,” Letang said. ”It’s something we’re going to have together our entire life and (now) we have a chance to make it even stronger and try to win.”
Something that hasn’t been an issue for the Penguins since Crosby’s No. 87, Malkin’s No. 71 and Letang’s No. 58 became fixtures in the lineup. Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2006, the season before Malkin and Letang arrived to help Crosby resurrect the fortunes of a team coming off a volatile period that included bankruptcy and the threat of relocation.
Three times Crosby, Letang and Malkin have paraded through the downtown streets of their adopted hometown with the Stanley Cup. Yet it’s been five years since that giddy night in Nashville when the Penguins became the first team in a generation to claim back-to-back titles.
It’s a fact not lost on any of them, one of the main reasons they don’t view the decision to stick together as a money grab. This isn’t about nostalgia. Their legacy was secure long before Malkin and Letang signed their new deals that could keep the core intact through at least 2025, when Crosby’s current contract ends.
This is about making another deep postseason run next spring. And the spring after that. And the spring after that.
”The main goal of having us all together is because we know we can win,” Letang said. ”We have the recipe and that’s what we want to want to do again. And that’s all that matters. It’s not breaking records. It’s about winning.”
It’s in the how where things get tricky. Malkin is 36 and coming off a wildly uneven season as he recovered from major knee surgery. Crosby and Letang are both 35 and while they remain in remarkable condition – Letang’s ice time last season was 25:47, the third-highest of his career – their bodies don’t bounce back quite like they used to. And they know it.
Crosby smiled while pointing out that 10 years ago, he typically would have stayed on the ice for an extended period after practice rather than try to conserve his energy before the six-month slog that is the regular season begins.
Don’t mistake Crosby’s more pragmatic approach to how he uses his time with a concession to Father Time or the idea he’s somehow lost a step or two. His next season averaging less than a point per game will be his first.
”You’ve still got to continue to improve and work on your game,” said Crosby, whose 1,108 regular season games are a franchise record. ”And you can’t cut corners there either. So it’s just a matter of balancing that.”
Letang tries to rein himself in on his days off, but says he once hops over the boards it’s like ”a switch.”
”You’re playing the game,” he said. ”You’re going as fast as you can. You don’t want to start managing yourself. That’s where you get hurt or that’s where, you know, your play starts to go down.”
Coach Mike Sullivan made it a point recently to say that his team – with an average age of 30.3 – is ”older but not old.”
There are a sprinkling of kids on the roster. Defenseman Pierre Olivier Joseph and forward Ryan Poehling were both born in 1999 and have no recollection of the Penguins without Crosby, Letang or Malkin.
Joseph remembers living in Montreal in the early 2000s and listening to his father, Frantzi, talk about a young Canadian phenom who was hockey’s next big thing. Fast forward nearly two decades and the phenom and his buddies are still going, setting an example Joseph is trying to absorb as best he can.
”To see the chemistry that they have and just see the experience that (Crosby) has and they have,” Joesph said, ”is really fun to see.”
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