Column | Pittsburgh’s recent playoff woes run far deeper than aging rosters


Image via David Fulmer, Wikimedia Commons

Pittsburgh sports fans haven’t seen their team advance in the playoffs in more than three years. Contrary to what many fans may believe, senior staff writer Kyle Saxon argues that the recent playoff drought isn’t solely due to aging rosters.

By Kyle Saxon, Senior Staff Writer

While winning consecutive Stanley Cups would leave most NHL fanbases content for decades, things are not so simple in the City of Champions.

The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the 2021 season with much to prove after a head-scratching and abrupt end to their 2019-20 campaign. After a solid regular season in the 2019-20 season, the Penguins finished third in the Eastern Conference, but their postseason performance was wildly underwhelming as the Penguins were swept by the New York Islanders.

While the loss left more questions than answers surrounding the team, the adversity of a near five month pause due to COVID-19 gave fans the hope that last year’s sweep was nothing more than a product of abnormal circumstances. After a turbulent start to the 2020-21 season, the Penguins silenced anyone who doubted their aging core of NHL stars, and secured the top seed in the East division.

After an even more impressive regular season than the year prior, the Penguins sit exactly where they did just 10 months ago –– concerned, confused and eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Islanders, now for the third consecutive season. Their 4-2 first round series loss highlighted the two biggest concerns surrounding the team –– goaltending and age.

The veteran trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang has remained dominant in the NHL for more than a decade. In their 15 seasons together, the Pittsburgh legends have propelled the Penguins to three Stanley Cups and immortalized themselves in the history of the City and the NHL. But this past season, the health and performance of both Malkin and Letang provided cause for concern at times. While Crosby remains a top player in the NHL, the 33-year-old superstar is receiving criticism for his poor play in the 2021 playoffs.

While currently the main focus of media criticism, the Penguins are not the only professional sports team in Pittsburgh with recent postseason woes. The Pittsburgh Steelers have not won a playoff game since defeating the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round on Jan. 15, 2017, and the Pirates have failed to reach the playoffs since 2015. As a whole, the City has not seen a team advance to the second round of the playoffs since the Penguins defeated the Flyers on April 22, 2018 — more than 1,000 days ago.

With the Pirates in full rebuild mode, questions loom over both the Steelers and Penguins –– when will it be time to usher in the next generation of players, or even coaches? While age certainly cannot be ignored for either team, it may not be as big of an issue the media makes it out to be.

The Steelers have rejuvenated their team each year and built an elite young defense complemented by a dynamic group of young offensive weapons. But the biggest target for recent criticism is the lone player that has remained a common denominator between all Steelers rosters since 2004 –– star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

While the 39-year-old threw for 33 touchdowns in 2020, the second-highest mark of his career, it was evident that the “Big Ben” Steelers fans watched last season had reinvented his style of play after a major elbow surgery in 2018. After hurling four interceptions in an uncompetitive playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns, many Steeler fans believe he is the core reason for the team’s 1-5 finish to the year.

Generally, the quarterback position receives a disproportionate amount of praise and criticism compared to other positions, but a football team is far larger than one player on a field. While quarterback is certainly the most valuable position, it is lazy to place the entire burden of a 48-37 loss on one single player. Roethlisberger’s third loss to the Browns in 28 career games could be perceived as a telltale sign that he is nearing the end of his career, but in reality, he isn’t even close to being the biggest problem for the Steelers’ recent playoff futility.

This same principle applies to the Penguins. Even though the largest amount of criticism will always be placed on the team’s biggest names and while their struggles are certainly a factor in the Penguins’ postseason woes, the solution is far more complex than getting rid of the older players on the team. Other impulsive fans want to see a change at the head coach position as well after the recent playoff struggles. But there’s a reason the fans are just fans and the front office members have the jobs that they do. According to the Penguins’ front office, Mike Sullivan is here to stay for at least one more year.

There will always be debate surrounding the direction of these organizations, and only time will tell if the decision to keep Roethlisberger for 2021 and the similar decisions facing the Penguins were handled correctly.

But regardless of who is playing quarterback for the Steelers, they will not win a playoff game in which they concede 48 points and rush for 52 yards. Similarly, regardless of who is coaching the team, the Penguins will not win a playoff game in which their goaltender concedes 5 goals in 24 shots on goal.

All of Pittsburgh’s professional sports organizations should be thoroughly assessed and criticized starting with the front office and player personnel for their continued struggles. But generational talents should not be driven out of the City simply out of frustration or impatience. Playoff losses are hard to swallow, but disappointment and impulsivity should not cloud the realities of the overall abilities that Pittsburgh’s star players still possess.

If the City of Champions wants to get back to supporting that identity, its organizations must ensure they commit resources to capitalizing on their closing championship windows. There is no one answer to doing so and an impulsive desire to overhaul the rosters simply due to age is certainly not the magic solution.