Thursday, April 28, 2011

Myths busted: A Penguins postmortem


I'm a big fan of the Discovery Channel show Mythbusters, and not just because of the scorching hot Kari Byron, who is at least 10 times hotter now that she's pumped out her kid. The Pittsburgh Penguins could star in an episode of Mythbusters, and not in a good way.

For instance, there is a myth the Penguins are a high-scoring team. They're not. There's a myth that Jordan Staal can be a No. 1 or 2 center on any other team. He can't.

At best, those two myths would get "plausible" ratings by Jamie and Adam. And that's only if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy.

Those two players were not healthy this postseason. That led to a glaring and elephant-in-the-room type weakness that the Penguins cannot score consistently without those two. Pittsburgh did a very admirable job in playing as well as it did in the second half of the season without their two guns (I could call them their two big guns, but that implies the Penguins have small guns when in fact there is a lack of firepower elsewhere.)

I made repeated jokes on Facebook and Twitter that the shootout was "helping the offensively-challenged Penguins win games since 2005." I posted the numbers in a previous post, and I'll go ahead and repeat them here: Pittsburgh won seven of its 10 shootout wins after Crosby and Malkin left the lineup. Seven out of 23 wins, compared to three shootout wins out of 26 overall pre-Crosby concussion.

Staal did virtually nothing to help the Penguins win their first-round playoff series. At least not offensively. He had one goal - albeit a semi-big one that tied Game 6 at 2-2 early in the third period - but that was it. He's a shutdown center who's capable of 20-some goals a season, but it now seems folly to expect anything greater from him.

The rest of the lineup, is, frankly, a joke. This is a problem, I believe, with the philosophies of general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma. I drunkenly ranted about this the other day but it bears repeating. Shero and Bylsma, rather than look for skilled players regardless of their defensive or forechecking abilities, would rather "make their team tough to play against" by adding forecheckers. Grinders, muckers. If you don't forecheck and play ferocious defense, you don't play.

After two consecutive failed postseasons in which goal scoring - finishing - was a significant issue, that strategy now seems flawed. It's one thing to win that way when Crosby, Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury are performing at all-world levels as they did in 2009 (or to a lesser extent, in 2008.) But if any of the trio struggle - as two of them did in 2010 - or are injured - as in this year - then the Penguins will be hard-pressed to make any kind of noise in the playoffs. Their ceiling will be one series victory a year, at best two.

Simply put, this team doesn't have enough talent, nor enough depth.

Sometimes there are options available. Bylsma stubbornly refused to make any lineup changes after Game 5 or Game 6, despite a power play that was one for 30 heading into Game 7. He left Eric Tangradi in the press box. Ditto Mike Comrie. Tangradi's presence was a key factor in Pittsburgh's sole power play goal of the postseason. Comrie was the only healthy Penguin with even one 30-goal season under his belt, let alone multiple.

I assume all voting for individual awards such as the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year are concluded before the start of the postseason. That's a good thing, because as good a job as Bylsma did in the regular season - leading the Penguins to their second-highest point total ever, nearly winning the division title despite playing half a season without Staal, then the second half without Malkin and Crosby - he seemed to do just as poor a job in the postseason. His bullheadedness with sticking with "his type of guys" and ignoring players who actually have some semblance of skill was just as big a factor in the Penguins blowing a 3-1 series lead for just the second time in team history.

I'd be remiss if I didn't expound upon the job Bylsma did. The Penguins tremendously overachieved in the second half. Earning home-ice advantage - not that it did any good - missing as many man-games as they did, and who they did (some teams lost more games, but none were nearly as significant as a Hart Trophy winner and a Conn Smythe winner) was a fabulous achievement. And it was a sweet ride.

Once the playoffs began, however, Pittsburgh's sheer lack of skill came to the forefront in a very negative way. The Penguins didn't once score more than three goals in a game against Tampa Bay in seven tries. They were held to two goals over the last two games, including the deciding shutout in Game 7.

The Penguins have a great number of free agents in the offseason. Some should be retained. Most of them are those third- and fourth-line grinders who lack actual ability to create plays and/or score goals. Shero needs to face up to the fact that he needs to add talent and not just sandpaper.

The salary cap doesn't help Shero. There's an awful lot of money tied up in Crosby, Malkin and Staal. Plus the defense corps. Shero has shown quite a bit of creativity in the past and he's going to need to work his magic some more, because this team, as constituted, is not capable of long-term success.

Crosby and Malkin might not miss the postseason at the same time again. Or they could both be absent as soon as next year. There is no Plan C if that happens. That has to change.

The better team won the series between Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. The Lightning had many more stars and their role players out-did Pittsburgh's. Goalie Dwayne Roloson out-dueled Fleury, who was hung out to dry on numerous occasions either by porous, lazy defense or the inability to generate any kind of offense.

That will easily happen again unless Shero and Bylsma decide to go after playmakers and not just grinders.

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