Where do Penguins go from here?

And so the halcyon age of glory for the Pittsburgh Penguins has inexorably -- and dare we say inexplicably -- morphed into an age of uncertainty and missed opportunity.

Having been sent packing after a five-game series against the New York Rangers in which they lost four games by a 2-1 count, it now appears that Pittsburgh's back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009 (winning it all in the second trip) were not the start of a championship trend but were the outliers in the Penguins' universe.

Since that two-year run, the Penguins have failed to come close to repeating that success, reaching the conference finals just once, when they were swept by the Boston Bruins in 2013.

The Penguins lost five straight playoff series to teams seeded lower than them in the regular-season standings from 2010 to 2014 before barely squeaking into the playoffs this season and being dumped from the tournament.

In spite of having two of the best players in the world in captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the organization must figure out how they can prevent even further erosion because this team that slunk into the playoffs as the second wild-card team by beating the worst team in the league on the final night of the regular season is closer to missing the playoffs than returning to playoff prominence.

In some ways, the Penguins are a cautionary tale that reinforces that old chestnut: As difficult as it is to reach the top, it pales in comparison to the effort required to stay there.

Ownership made it clear after the team unexpectedly made the playoffs in 2007 with 105 points that they were going to go for it. The strategy worked brilliantly in the next two seasons, especially in 2009, when the team won its first Stanley Cup since 1992. But the recent history of the Penguins suggests it is not a sustainable pattern to consistently trade away picks and prospects to add that missing piece to the playoff puzzle because not every piece fits the puzzle. And when the pieces don't fit and you have sacrificed prospects and picks, well, you're toast even if you have two of the most gifted players on the planet.

It seemed more than a little unfair last spring that general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma were fired after the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers in the second round, following the ownership mandate to win now and damn the torpedoes.

The mandate didn't change for new GM Jim Rutherford, who came in essentially as a bridge to homegrown managerial talents Bill Guerin, Jason Botterill and/or Tom Fitzgerald. Rutherford was tasked with changing the culture in the Pens' dressing room and adding more grit for the long playoff wars. And in some ways Rutherford did so economically, bringing in Steve Downie, Christian Ehrhoff and Blake Comeau at bargain prices. But he also sent a first-round pick to Edmonton for David Perron, who started quickly but was a disaster down the stretch and through the playoffs.

With Pascal Dupuis lost long-term to injury once again, Malkin and Crosby found themselves flanked by a curious collection of castoffs and underachievers.

Chris Kunitz had one memorable game in the playoffs, a three-point effort in the Pens' Game 2 victory, but was a nonfactor beyond that, and his ongoing value to the team seems minimal at best.

Patric Hornqvist, the replacement for James Neal, who was shipped to Nashville at the draft as part of the revamping of the team's character, promised Sunday the team would be better next year. While Hornqvist was useful, his lack of foot speed and durability makes him a stopgap answer to the Penguins' significant offensive issues.

The team has virtually no viable offensive prospects that appear ready to seize the moment, which once again leaves the team in the unenviable position of having to try to fill those gaping organizational holes from the outside.

Defensively the team's future looks more promising, and certainly the absence of Olli Maatta, Kris Letang and Ehrhoff contributed mightily to the Pens' struggles against the Rangers.

But Letang's future is clouded by concussion issues and Ehrhoff and Paul Martin, who was forced into the No. 1 defensive role down the stretch and through the playoffs, could both be gone via free agency.

Given the injuries, it's difficult to handicap the job done by rookie coach Mike Johnston and whether he deserves another shot.

He said Sunday he felt the team was tracking the right way until early March, when injuries helped send the team "off a cliff."

And given those injuries, the benefit of the doubt should go to Johnston for putting in place a game plan that allowed the Penguins to stay as close to the Presidents' Trophy winners as they did. Allowing 11 goals in five games with a patchwork blue line speaks to the work done by Johnston and his staff, which includes Gary Agnew and Rick Tocchet.

Still, you can't ignore the fact that the Penguins never once won a game, regular season or playoffs, when trailing after two periods. Not one. And that their power play, once a potent machine, stalled when it was most needed.

So it is more than a little curious that upper management is already on record as saying both Rutherford and Johnston will return next season.

How is that a sound long-term plan when Johnston wasn't even their first choice last offseason?

What if Mike Babcock leaves the Detroit Red Wings and, as has been hinted at over the months, was interested in coaching Crosby outside the Olympic sphere? How is Babcock not an upgrade over Johnston? How is that not worth exploring?

Let's say they do hire Babcock at some point this offseason. Then the team's integrity takes another hit for dumping Johnston after publicly saying he would stay on board, after it let Bylsma twist in the wind for weeks following the 2014 postseason.

And then we come to Malkin and Crosby, the twin superstars around whom the Penguins' universe orbits.

Malkin was clearly injured during the latter stages of the regular season and playoffs even though he downplayed those injuries and took responsibility for his lack of production -- zero points in five playoffs games and 15 straight games without a goal. Malkin told reporters after the end of the series that he owed an apology to the fans and that he didn't do what leaders of hockey teams do to help them be successful.

This team has no chance of sustained success without Malkin healthy and playing better -- and we are assuming the two elements are mutually inclusive.

Crosby scored twice and added two assists in the playoffs and, outside of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, was the team's best player. But the playoffs of recent years have not been kind to Crosby. He had just one goal in 13 games last spring and was, like most of his teammates, held off the score sheet entirely in the 2013 sweep by Boston in the conference finals.

Upper management has likewise insisted that Malkin and Crosby will remain with the Penguins next season, and Crosby actually chuckled when asked about his future with the Penguins on Sunday.

"It hasn't changed. This is where I want to be," Crosby said. "Obviously like everyone the expectations are high [and] they haven't changed.

"It's tough, obviously, when you lose. You don't like it. But that's the process sometimes," added Crosby, who will join Canada's effort at the World Championships for the first time since 2006.

"More than happy to be here and find ways to win."

Malkin echoed those sentiments Sunday, saying he likes the city, as do his parents, who are frequent visitors from Russia. He added that he believes the Pens can win a Cup again.

Both Malkin and Crosby share responsibility for the disappointments of the past several years, and even though it is an interesting exercise to discuss what might happen should one of those players be traded, the bottom line is they will only leave Pittsburgh of their own accord, given they both possess no-trade/no-movement clauses.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether this is a team that can reclaim glory with their superstars eating up $18.2 million in cap space.

In the coming weeks, expect discussion about whether a Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf or any number of skilled but expensive and/or problematic wingers would cure what ails the Pens. These are the storylines that dog every middle-of-the-road team looking for a magic combination. They are the storylines that are now very much the reality of the Pittsburgh Penguins.