It's cold comfort for a team that just dropped a Stanley Cup final, but the Pittsburgh Penguins can take solace in the fact that they should be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Despite Wednesday's 3-2 home loss — the capper on a hard-fought six-game defeat to the Detroit Red Wings — the Eastern Conference champions made a great leap forward in 2007-08, becoming the NHL's unofficial Up-And-Coming Young Team to Watch.
"We've come a long way. But that doesn't make this any easier," an emotional Sidney Crosby said as he sat in his stall at Mellon Arena.
Better times figure to be on the horizon for the Penguins, who marched through Ottawa, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia in just 14 games to reach the Cup final. A scant two years ago, the Pens finished 29th in the 30-team league. Last year, they served as first-round cannon fodder for the eventual conference champion Senators. This season, Pittsburgh won the Atlantic Division and the No. 2 seed in the East despite losing Crosby — their captain and best player — for six weeks with an ankle injury.
Star sidekick Evgeni Malkin was a revelation during Crosby's absence, keeping the team afloat en route to a breakout season of 47 goals and 106 points, the latter figure trailing only the 112 posted by NHL scoring champion Alex Ovechkin.
Though the Russian sniper faded toward the end of the playoffs, he still notched better than a point a game in the post-season, and he'll be just 22 at the start of the 2008-09 campaign.
Malkin said after Wednesday's loss that he was battling the flu at the beginning of the final.
"Yes, at the end of the Flyers series and the beginning of the Detroit series I was a little bit sick," said Malkin. "But I don't think it was a major factor with my game."
Tough decisions loom
Crosby, who easily averaged better than a point a game for the third straight regular season before tying Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg for the playoff lead with 27 points, will be 21. Starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury — the talk of the hockey world after a dazzling 55-save effort in Pittsburgh's do-or-die triple-overtime Game 5 win — will be 23.
"We're going in the right direction with those young kids," said Penguins coach Michel Therrien. "The future is bright with those young kids. This is definitely a team that is really fun to coach. They paid a price to try to get better. I'm really proud of my players."
The Penguins do have some tough decisions to make over the summer. Fleury, a restricted free agent, will likely be back, though a rival team may present him with an offer sheet that Pittsburgh would have the right to match.
Pittsburgh's list of key unrestricted free agent is much longer. Marian Hossa, who racked up 26 points in the playoffs, is free to sign elsewhere come July 1, as is fellow trade-deadline acquisition Pascal Dupuis. Ditto for hearty forwards Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, George Laracque and Adam Hall, as well as defenceman Brooks Orpik and backup goalie Ty Conklin.
Roberts, the 42-year-old emotional centre of the team, indicated after Wednesday's defeat that he'll put off retirement.
"The way these fans have treated me, and the way I've enjoyed my time here, I have a tough time thinking that it's over at this point," Roberts told Hockey Night in Canada.
General manager Ray Shero must decide who's worth retaining, while at the same time making sure to save enough salary-cap room to sign Malkin, who can become a restricted free agent next summer.
The good news is that cash flow should no longer be an issue — a stark contrast from the pre-lockout years when the team flirted with bankruptcy. Part owner Mario Lemieux helped save the team from relocation when his group was able to negotiate a deal last year with the city to build a new arena, which begins construction next month.
"We've come a long way in a short period of time," Lemieux said. "It's always disappointing not to win once you see the Cup this close. But we played a great team and a great organization. And they deserve to win.
"Hopefully this will teach our young kids how to win. And hopefully next time we'll be much better."