Category Archives: CH Column

CH Column: Is Crosby the Next 50-in-50 Guy?

Don’t call it a comeback, but I’m very excited to be joining the LTP team again. I believe in this group of guys and gals and the Penguins coverage we can provide. We just try to bring our very best to the rest of Penguins fans everywhere.
Someone else who’s bringing their best right now is Sidney Crosby. We may be seeing a version of Crosby that supersedes his level of play before that infamous concussion at the Winter Classic. His shots are going in at a ridiculous rate, but he’s also still finding teammates for scoring chances like he has before. His assist on Letang’s OT-winner in Brooklyn was delicious. There’s been a lot of talk of him possibly accomplishing a feat that would seem impossible in today’s NHL: 50 goals in 50 games. 

Can he do it? I think if anyone in this league could do it, it would be him or Ovechkin. I’d bet on Sid over Ovi because the latter tends to be streaky, and in today’s NHL, streaky players would have a REALLY hard time scoring 50 in 50. 

Now, one thing we have to remember is the “50-in-50” rule is 50 goals in the TEAM’s first 50 games, not the player’s first 50 games played. People recognize players that have accomplished that as “unofficial” 50-in-50 guys, but officially, only five guys have done it (Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky (3 times), Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull (2 times)). Could Sid join such an elite club this season?

My answer is no. I’d love to say yes, and I’m not counting him out, but his shooting percentage is off the charts right now and seems to be unsustainable. It’s just so hard to do in today’s NHL. The last guy to do it was Brett Hull in the 1991-1992 season. The last guy who “unofficially” did it was Mario Lemieux in 1995-1996, who scored his 50th goal in HIS 50th game, but it was the team’s 59th game. 

Crosby has 12 goals in 19 team games (he’s played 13). An official 50-in-50 just doesn’t seem realistic to me. However, if he were to pull of an “unofficial” 50-in-50, in today’s NHL, that’s a legit accomplishment. I also think Sid has a real shot at scoring 50 goals this season, winning his second Rocket Richard, and probably winning the Art Ross. This is in no way downgrading how Sid’s playing right now. He’s the best player in the world right now and there’s no argument against it. And the team really hasn’t clicked on all cylinders yet, and I think once they do, you’ll see even more points from Sid. 

In today’s NHL, 50-in-50 would take some divine intervention. It’s like the NHL tries to prevent goals sometimes. But that’s a topic for a different time. While I don’t believe it will happen, I’m cheering to prove myself wrong.

CH Column: I’m Pulling My Support of Mike Tomlin

The election is over. Half of America is happy while the other half is in disbelief and dismay. After months and months of campaigning, it’s finally all over. We have our President-elect.

There is another campaign going on recently that is picking up a lot of steam on social media and other outlets: those defending Mike Tomlin to the grave and those calling for his head. 

For his entire tenure, I’ve been a Tomlin supporter. I’ve been fairly critical of his time management and other blunders, but still supported him and defended him as the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’m done. I can’t anymore. When you look at certain statistics that are extremely mind-bottling (I recently re-watched Blades of Glory), it’s hard to campaign for a coach that’s severely underachieved. 

I’m a member of a Steelers fan page on Facebook, and a discussion broke out of people comparing Tomlin to Bill Cowher. People, it’s not even close. People look at the surface and say, “Tomlin had the same amount of Conference championships and Super Bowl championships as Cowher, but in 5 less years!” They’ll also say, “Tomlin’s never had a losing season, while Cowher had three!” And when you look at that and only those points, you might think it’d be hard to vote against Tomlin. Oh boy, you are so wrong.

First off, Bill Cowher had nothing at quarterback for his entire tenure until Big Ben was drafted. We’re talking about Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomzack, Kent Graham, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox. He had NOTHING. He couldn’t get a franchise quarterback. Yet, he went to four conference championships and one Super Bowl without one, and nearly beat the team of the 90’s in Super Bowl XXX, if it weren’t for, guess who: his quarterback. As soon as Cowher got a franchise quarterback, he went 15-1 and went to the AFC Championship in 2004, and won the Super Bowl in 2005. It took him only two years to get to the top of the mountain once he got an elite quarterback. Also remember, that Cowher and GM Kevin Colbert built the 2005 team. 

Let’s look at Tomlin. Tomlin inherited a team one year removed from a Super Bowl victory, with the majority of the team still in place. Some key guys were gone (Bettis, Faneca, Porter), but the majority of that team was in place. He also inherited a franchise quarterback. Now, I give Tomlin credit. The team can be extremely talented and have all the right players, but you still need someone to captain the ship to lead you to the top of the mountain. Tomlin did that in 2008. He may not have built that team, but he led them there. Bad coaches don’t win Super Bowls, but average ones can. But as time has gone on, and more and more of Cowher’s players have left, it’s become more and more Tomlin’s team. As a matter of fact, the only player left drafted under Cowher’s regime is Ben Roethlisberger. And as it’s become more and more of Tomlin’s team, they’ve gotten worse and worse. 

Since 2012, Tomlin’s team is 19-23 vs teams that are .500 or worse. Well-coached teams don’t lose to teams they should be beating. If it weren’t for Cincinnati giving away a win in the playoffs last year (in a game where Tomlin couldn’t even control his own coaches’ behavior), ZERO playoff wins in five years. This is all with one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, arguably the best all-around running back in the league, and arguably the best receiver in football. Now, the Steelers can’t win the Super Bowl every year, but you’d expect some better performances than sub-.500 against bad teams. You’d expect more playoff wins. You’d also expect a defensive-minded coach to have a better defense than one of the worst in the last three years. And as we look toward Sunday against the 7-1 Dallas Cowboys, I have friends that are Cowboy fans (I live in Dallas) asking me what I think is going to happen on Sunday. I’ve been saying, “I have no idea.” I don’t. I never know what team is going to show up on Sunday. You either get the team that killed Washington and Kansas City, or the team that looked like a high school team against Miami and Baltimore. Well-coached teams are CONSISTENT. The Steelers are far from that. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Steelers won on Sunday 42-10 or lost 38-3. Consistent doesn’t mean you win every week, but you get the same team with the same effort week in and week out. This past week is just another example of poor coaching. The Steelers had one first down in the first three quarters of the game. They played horribly in a week coming off of a bye, where you have an extra week to prepare. Players like Ben and Le’Veon Bell are questioning effort and tightness of practices. Fox Sports’ radio host Colin Cowherd uses a perfect term to describe the Steelers: they’re not “buttoned up.” 105.9’s Mark Madden claims Tomlin is a player’s coach and that they have an “expiration date.” I’m not the only one who’s seeing it, folks. Tomlin is losing the handle on his team year after year, game after game. 

Mike Tomlin isn’t a bad coach. He’s just not the right coach. I fully believe the Steelers don’t win another Super Bowl under Tomlin. I hope he makes me eat my words, but the last 5 years of inconsistency is enough fuel for me to get the engine running on my campaign against Tomlin. I still support and love the team, but Tomlin is not the coach everyone thinks he is. And he sure as heck is not Bill Cowher.

CH Column: Stars Shined Brightest in ECF Victory

The Pittsburgh Penguins are Eastern Conference Champions. Yeah, Pittsburgh is going to be celebrating this win into and all throughout the holiday weekend. From where this team was when the coaching change was made in December, to where they are now, is simply amazing. Mike Sullivan changed the identity of this team. Jim Rutherford made the necessary moves to enhance that identity. And now, here we are. The Penguins are in the Stanley Cup Final.
It wasn’t an easy road though. Their Eastern Conference Final opponent gave the Penguins one heck of a fight, even being down key players. Like any good team, they had guys step up and perform at a level necessary to be successful (Vasilevsky. Hats off to you dude.). And at the end of this night, the Lightning were one goal shy of the Final themselves.

We knew going in that this was going to be a fast series, with a great dose of skill. As I stated in my preview of the series, I just believed the Penguins were the faster and more skilled team. Many, including myself, believed the Penguins were the better team. The Penguins proved they were in game seven.

Now I could sit here and break this down game by game, saying what the Penguins did right and what they did wrong. Game three being an example of the former, and the first two periods of game four being an example of the latter. I’m not going to do that. I want to talk about WHY this team won. Why they were able to look adversity and elimination in the face and rise above it. Why they came alive in games six and seven and outplayed one of the faster, more skilled teams in the league. Why they punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final: Sid and Geno.

Don’t get me wrong here. This was wholly a team effort. I’m not forgetting about Sheary and Maatta, who bounced back after being healthy scratches at some point in the series and played some of the best hockey they’ve ever played, especially Maatta. I’m not forgetting about Bryan Rust and his two goals, that could’ve easily been four, in the biggest game of his career. I’m not forgetting about Ben Lovejoy and how he is making the haters of the Despres trade rethink the fact that they hate it (seriously, he’s been fantastic in these playoffs). I’m not forgetting about Chris Kunitz, who has found some gas left in the tank and is playing at a level we haven’t seen in a long time from him. I’m not forgetting about Matt Murray, who could’ve easily been rattled by his benching in game five, but answered the call with two solid games facing elimination.

I’m not forgetting about anyone, but this all stems from leadership. Crosby and Malkin played two great games when this team was facing elimination. Go ahead and scrutinize Malkin’s play early in the series and Sid’s passiveness in games four and five, but the fact is that when this team needed its leaders to lead, they did it. Crosby had three game-winning goals in the series. Malkin finds himself on a four-game point streak. And they both found another gear in the final two games. Malkin was skating hard in all three zones, making impressive plays in the offensive zone as well as back checking in the defensive zone. Crosby’s goal in game six was just stupid good. He made passes when he needed to, but was creating shots for himself. That’s when both of these guys are at their best. The team sees that. They see their two best players leading by example. This is a close knit team, what choice do they have but to give everything they have too?

I’ve said this all playoffs. This team is special. A SPECIAL kind of special. Just when things seem like they’re going to fall apart, they answer with resiliency. When things go wrong, it’s so easy to blaim the coaching or the leaders’ lack of leadership. But things are going right. Right to the Cup Final. And I’m giving credit where credit is due. Sid and Geno have lead this team here. They’re goal is 16 wins. 12 down, 4 to go. Bring on San Jose.

CH Column: Letang Is The Measure Of A Defenseman

This past Saturday, the NHL announced the three finalists for the Norris Trophy for this past season. Kris Letang was not one of them. This came to the dismay of many in Pittsburgh, who have watched Letang blossom into one of the game’s top defensemen over the years. Take everything that is said in this column knowing that this is coming from someone who has been critical of Letang throughout his career (and I’ll get into that in a bit), but this year, I am convinced that Kris Letang is a legit player, a bona fide superstar, and by the end of his career, may be the best Penguins defenseman ever. I believe him being left out of the Norris running is a joke, but I’m sure Letang himself cares more about a Stanley Cup than the Norris Trophy. Still, Letang’s play needs to be recognized by others outside of Pittsburgh.

I remember watching Letang play in the 2009 Cup run, thinking “this guy could be the guy that anchors our defense for years. He’s still young and raw, but man, when he develops in what he could become, he could be scary special.” Ok, those may not have been my EXACT words, but if I had to paraphrase my thoughts from back then, it’d be something similar to that. And after watching him for the last seven years, he’s gone through his ups and downs, both on and off the ice.

I’ll be honest, Letang used to be in my doghouse. And he was in it for quite a while. Call me conservative, but I’d rather one be more responsible and not as aggressive, even knowing that being aggressive pays off every now and then. With Letang, he either made a masterful play or an asinine play. That was what I couldn’t stand. I got sick and tired of him getting caught too deep in the offensive zone, disregarding his teammates, especially his defensive partner, leaving them out to dry. Even for a while, either ex-GM Ray Shero or current GM Jim Rutherford tried to bring in “stay at home” defensemen to prepare themselves for Letang being, well, Letang. Now, one thing that I won’t hold against Letang in regards to being aggressive in the offensive zone is, as a hockey player, when a defensman joins the rush and goes down low, a forward (primarily the winger) needs to recognize that and drop back to the point, just in case the other team gets the puck, so you don’t give up a two-on-one. But in the end, communication is the key there. I don’t know when that would happen if it was a lack of communication or whatever, but that fact is, it happened too often. Letang also tended to get a little sloppy in the defensive zone, either by forcing breakout passes and turning the puck over, especially in the defensive zone, or playing a forechecker too aggressively and leaving his goalie out to dry. And Letang’s biggest flaw over the years has been his temper. It flares up during games. In the past, he’s taken dumb penalties at bad times. And man, that mouth of his. For all those that thought Crosby barked at the refs more than anyone, sorry, but Crosby wasn’t even the worst on his team. It seemed like every time Letang got called for a penalty, he was barking at the refs. No matter how right or wrong refs are (yeah, most of the time they’re wrong), they don’t like it. They remember it. And you (reader), remember this thought about his mouth. I’m going to come back to it later.

Don’t get me wrong, this all sounds harsh. And, I’m no hockey expert, otherwise, I’d be paid for it. And by no means did I think that he was a poor defenseman. From 2009-2013, he was a combined +53. That’s dang good. And maybe I was so hard on him because I expected a little more consistency from him. Some guys get it right away. Some guys don’t get it for a while. And some guys don’t get it at all. But I’ll tell you what, he’s gotten it now. Big time.

In early 2014, Kris Letang suffered a stroke. This dude is in his twenties. He had a stroke. How often does that happen? Seriously? Literally, at his age, .01% of the time. I was starting to really come around on Letang around this time. I liked what I was seeing from him. I saw him maturing, trying to become a more responsible defenseman. And, forget hockey for a minute. This guy has a wife and son. He needs to be there for them. Then he had the stroke. I, along with many others, wondered if he could play hockey again. A stroke, no matter how minor, is nothing to dismiss. I was rooting for him to return, and come back better than ever, but I was totally understanding if he would’ve had to consider retirement. Life and family are way more important than a game or a job. We all witnessed that within the past couple years with Pascal Dupuis’ situation. But doctors assured Letang that hockey wasn’t the cause of the stroke and they cleared him to return. He ended up playing the last three regular season games that year and all thirteen playoff games, playing as much as 28 minutes in a game. Letang trained hard over the offseason and returned, ready to play for a new GM and new coach.

Over the last couple seasons, Letang has matured vastly. He has become a very responsible defensemen, playing with physicality and excellent technique in the defensive zone, while not sacrificing his skills offensively. He’s always been great at moving the puck in all three zones. He’s a great skater. He’s got great speed. And, especially this year, he has matured in just about every facet of the game. He has become the elite defenseman that I saw him becoming. He’s actually exceeded what I thought he could do. He’s logged minutes this year he’s never done before. He’s broken his own career-high in minutes multiple times this season. He plays on the powerplay, he kills penalties, he plays against the opposing teams’ top stars, and he’s had multiple defensive partners over the season. And he’s done all of it without missing a step. And his numbers since Mike Sullivan took over the coaching responsibilites are stupid good. In the 46 games under Sully, he’s recorded 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists), which is 1.15 PPG. He’s flourished in Sully’s system, but Letang is not just a product of the system. As a matter of fact, I don’t think anyone on this team is. Sully puts trust into the 20 guys that take the ice game in and game out. Letang has constantly answered the call and earned the praise of his coach in the process. Letang has done everything he can to become the best player he can be, and he’s done a dang good job at it too. He’s earned my praise, otherwise I wouldn’t take the time to write this. This is the first player profile I’ve done on this site, and he’s well deserving of it.

If I have a theory on why Letang wasn’t considered even as a Finalist for the Norris (or even the Masterton last year after returning from a freaking stroke), it’s his reputation (picking up from my previous thought earlier). Fans don’t like guys who complain, but refs REALLY don’t like guys who complain. And they won’t help out the guys they don’t like. Case and point is game two against Washington in this year’s playoffs. Letang was slashed, punched, and slashed and punched again, and nothing was ever called. Letang makes a clean, defensive play, and gets called for tripping. I mean, seriously:

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What a joke, right? But when the refs don’t like you, they won’t help you out. It’s stupid and it’s not right or fair, but I really think Letang’s reputation could possibly be a reason why he doesn’t get the respect or credit he deserves. Now, Letang has even admitted himself, that he’s getting better about it. He knows barking at officials does absolutely nothing. Sully has helped out in that regard as well. It’s one of the reasons why he’s the coach this team needed. And Letang has reaped all the benefits from it. Now you bet, he was screaming at the refs after that one last night. I was too. I don’t there was a voice wearing black and gold last night that wasn’t. It gift-wrapped a Washington game-tying goal. And I’m not saying he can never plead his case, but he’s got to make strides to earning the officials’ respect back. It’s clear they don’t have any for him, so what does Kris need to do? Shut up and play hockey. And you know what? He’s done it for the majority of the year. Just that. And he’s played at levels that exceed human ability.

Yep, the Penguins have an elite defensemen. His name is Kris Letang. And we wouldn’t trade him for anyone. Not Karlsson, Doughty, or Burns. They’re all great defenseman, but Letang is ours. And he may not get the credit he deserves on the level he deserves, but we know the truth. And he’ll take a Stanley Cup over a Norris Trophy. Every time.

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Just keep doing it, Kris. They’ll have to hand the Norris over to you eventually. And if you keep playing the way you played in game two, they won’t have choice. #LetangForNorris


412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

CH Column: How Is This Team Different Under Sully?

On December 11th, 2015, the Penguins dropped a shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings, bringing the Penguins to a 15-10-3 record; good enough for 5th in the Metropolitan Division and out of the playoff picture. General Manager Jim Rutherford decided at this  point to end Mike Johnston’s tenure as the head coach of the team. There were a couple names being thrown around as a replacement for Johnston, including assistant coach Jacques Martin. Rutherford instead took a familiar route that the Penguins took in the 2008-2009 Stanley Cup season and hired Mike Sullivan, the head coach of the minor league affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

The move was made with some optimism from the fan base, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the Mike Johnston era had drained some water from the proverbial glass half-full. I’m an optimist when it comes to the outlook of the teams I cheer for and follow, but I had just gotten to the point where I just wanted the Penguins to be fun to watch again. I didn’t care about Stanley Cups, division titles, Hart trophies, or any other accolade. I just wanted games to be fun again. Mike Johnston’s system not only crippled the talent on this team, but it was the most boring style of hockey I’ve watched in my entire life. It made the New Jersey Devil’s neutral zone trap look like a trip to Disney World. Johnston’s system took away one of the team’s strongest assets: speed. Players like Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel are all at their best on the rush, putting the defense on their heels.  Johnston’s system was all about moving through the three zones as a team and supporting each other. While it had its strengths, especially in the defensive zone (the team was allowing 2.39 goals against per game under Johnston this season), it had many weaknesses in the neutral zone and offensive zone. Johnston wanted shot volume, but disregarded shot quality. Most shots were from defensemen on the point or from forwards way outside the slot and because the team couldn’t establish a good forecheck, offensive zone pressure was minimal (the team scored 2.39 goals per game under Johnston). Johnston’s system wasn’t a good fit for this team. I’m not saying it can’t work in the NHL, it just didn’t work with the Penguins. It especially didn’t work with Crosby. Under Johnston, Crosby registered 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in 28 games, a whopping 0.68 points per game. Crosby was also a minus-6.

Enter Mike Sullivan. HCMS brought a new attitude to this team. He also implemented an up-tempo style, giving the chance for players to work creatively, especially in the offensive zone. He wanted a hard working team, in all phases of the game. He wanted the team to push past adversity and be resilient. And while it didn’t start out that way when the team went 0-4 in his first four games as head coach, after some time, changes seemed to take place, especially offensively. After the 0-4 start under HCMS, the Penguins are 25-10-5. The team is scoring nearly a goal more per game, and Sidney Crosby has turned into the best player in the world again (of course, he never stopped being the best in the world). Under Sullivan, Crosby has 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists), scoring 1.33 points per game, and is a plus-21. I always believed that Crosby’s dreadful start was more attributed to the Johnston system. Crosby didn’t forget how to play hockey. His performance under Sullivan proves that. Oh, and since the coaching change, Crosby leads the NHL in scoring.

The most impressive thing I’ve taken away from the team under Sullivan is their resilience. They never break or give up when down in a game. There have been several games where they’ve fallen behind 1-0 or 2-0 early, and have ended up coming back, sometimes even winning. The team knows how to score again. The players seem to respect and respond to Sullivan more. Just watching this team each game is the only way to see that something special is going on.

The additions of Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin (thank you GMJR) have given huge jolts to both the offense and defense. Sure, there’s still work to do. They’re not a perfect team by any means, but they’ve gotten to a point where the fight they put up makes me think they could beat any team in a best-of-seven series.

The playoffs are looming. Ten games remain. The Penguins are finding their stride at the right time. We can hope they continue to trend this way. And they wouldn’t be where they are without Mike Sullivan steering the ship.


 

412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

CH Column: #BestSportWorstLeague

I’ve been pretty active on Twitter during Penguins games, and probably at least once or twice during a game, something happens where I am once again baffled at the NHL and the state the league is in and I tweet my two cents. I usually use the hashtag #BestSportWorstLeague in those tweets. While it’s fun to use it just to take a jab at the NHL, it’s four words that could not be more true. 

Hockey is a sport of great skill, passion, history, tradition, and the sport has arguably the most committed fans. My reasoning for hockey having the most committed fans is that NHL hockey is probably the worst it’s ever been and yet, teams like the Penguins, who aren’t doing very well, are still selling out games. 

The fans deserve a better product. There are two MAJOR issues the NHL has right now that need to be fixed in order for the league to not just thrive, but grow to a wider audience:

LACK OF SCORING: If you look at the scores in the NHL at 11:40 pm ET on 12/27/15, not one team scored more than 3 goals in a game. Last year’s Art Ross winner, Jamie Benn, did not eclipse 90 points. Average people want to watch hockey for two things: goals and fighting. The NHL could gain many more fans and, simply, make the game more exciting if they tried to take positive steps towards increasing scoring in the NHL. They claim they’ve done this, however, with every step they’ve taken, they’ve taken two steps back. After the 2004 lockout, they eliminated ties and introduced shootouts to excite fans, however, there are mixed feeling among hockey fans when it comes to the shootout. Recently, the NHL implemented 3-on-3 overtime to increase chances of scoring in overtime, therefore not having to go to a shootout. However, this doesn’t fix the actual problem. The problem is that the NHL doesn’t enforce rules like they did in the 80’s and 90’s. Teams aren’t getting anywhere near the amount of powerplays per game than they were back in the day. Powerplays increase scoring, plus not enforcing rules allows players to get away with murder by crosschecking, slashing, high-sticking, hooking, etc.. That in turn does not give players open ice to increase scoring chances. And this leads to the second problem.

LACK OF ACTUAL PLAYER SAFETY: To save time, I’ll paste a rant I went on on Facebook last night

 And no, there won’t be further discipline for the hit on Letang. Players are not safe in the league nowadays. There is not heavy punishment to players who need to be punished for injuring players, intentional or not. Obviously, intention requires further discipline. 

Commissioner Gary Bettman has seen three work stoppages under his tenure and if that’s not enough for his job to be in question, these problems should be enough. I can only hope the NHL looks into these issues with actual consideration for change. 

CH Column: Hot Seat Is Getting Hotter For Mike Johnston; Or At Least It Should Be

As the seconds ticked down to close out an ugly 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, the boo birds made themselves known at CONSOL Energy Center. And who can blame them?

Thursday night was an abysmal night for the Penguins, who played, by far, their worst game of the season. There were many factors that led to the horrendous loss: ugly turnovers, poor passing, horribly-timed line changes, I could keep going. It got to a point late in the second period where it looked like the Penguins were just kind of skating around. No drive, no forecheck, no pressure, no…nothing. They couldn’t even score late in the third period when they had 1:39 of a 6-on-3 power play. 

That’s embarrassing. 

I could be over exaggerating a little bit, but it sure didn’t look like a team that would scare any playoff contenders. And THAT’S the thing that stands out to me the most. This is a team that has a lot of star power in all phases of the game; a team that is supposed to be built for deep playoff runs annually. It’s a team that on paper, would be considered a Stanley Cup Contender. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford set out to build four scoring lines to add depth behind the top-6 forwards, and it looked like he did the job. He acquired players like Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cullen, and drafted 18 year-old Dutch-born Daniel Sprong, who had such a good camp that the coaches had no choice but to give him a 9-game look. While the Penguins lost Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff to free agency, there’s always been optimism for the youth in the Penguins system and some of them are finally getting their chance like Brian Dumoulin and newly acquired Adam Clendening, who the Penguins acquired along with Nick Bonino when they sent Brandon Sutter to Vancouver. The bottom line is that while there was a lot of change to the roster, it seemed to be change for the better. There was the anticipation of a high-octane offense, scoring goals at a high level. So, how is this team NOT scary? What is the problem? How is it that you have players like Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel in your lineup and can’t score?

After Thursday night, the Penguins stand at 3-4-0. They have been outscored 15-11. While the 2.14 Goals Against Average is impressive and has kept the Penguins in most of the games (and is a tribute to just how good Marc-Andre Fleury has been), they are averaging 1.57 goals per game. That in a word is: abysmal. In their three wins, they’ve outscored opponents 7-3, but in their four losses, they’ve been outscored 12-4. While this season has started off the way it has, and you can call it a small sample size or whatever else to sugarcoat it, but the reality is that you can look back even further to how bad the Penguins have been for almost nine calendar months. They are 18-18-4 since the beginning of February (not including the 1-4 playoff record in the 1st round loss to the Rangers). The power play has been bad for almost an entire calendar year. Since starting last season 18 of 43 on the power play (41.9%), they’ve been 31 of 216 since, a horrid 14.4%. Looking at this, there’s only one conclusion I can come to: Mike Johnston’s job isn’t safe. And it shouldn’t be.

The Penguins are a team that’s in “win now” mode. They wouldn’t have traded away 1st round picks for players like David Perron, who should’ve been credited with an assist on Jason Spezza’s goal for Dallas tonight, if they weren’t trying to piece together a team to win now. Take a look at the core of this team: Crosby is 28, Malkin 29, Fleury 30, Letang 29, and Kessel 28. They aren’t old, but they’re getting near the end of their prime years. The window of Stanley Cup contention with these players is getting smaller and the Penguins have to know that. After the team hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2009, talks of a dynasty started. Unfortunately, the farthest they’ve gone since then is the conference finals, where they were embarrassed by the Boston Bruins in a 4-0 sweep where they barely squeaked out two goals in four games. There has been no dynasty. After another disappointing exit in the 2013-2014 season, everyone knew change was coming.

Enter Mike Johnston. Johnston brought in a new system that at the beginning of last year looked like the Penguins might have found their guy to bring them back to Cup contention. After the first couple of months, the Penguins didn’t look like a scary team anymore and haven’t since then. Quite frankly, I just don’t believe Johnston’s system is the right one for the skill the Penguins have in the lineup. Johnston’s system is all about the team working together in all three zones and about possessing the puck. While it’s always important to possess the puck, emphasizing too much on team play in all three zones can handcuff your stars. In the defensive zone, the forwards can get buried too deep in their own zone making a fast breakout hard to accomplish. The Penguins have a lot of speed in their lineup and could utilize it to attack the opponent fast on the break out and get odd-man rushes. That’s how they scored under Bylsma. They would get the puck out of the zone as fast as possible and the forwards would run north-south fast and put the defense on their heels. It does leave defensive holes and chances for odd-man rushes the other way, but the Penguins scored a lot of goals. AND, it seems that even though there’s an effort to breakout as a team, the Penguins are still giving up odd-man rushes. Terrible line changes can be the cause of that, and they definitely were Thursday night. In the neutral zone under this system, where the team is supposed to be moving together, the team looks lost and is having WAY more trouble entering the offensive zone than it should, and don’t even get me started on the entry while on the power play. In the offensive zone under Johnston’s system, the defensemen are active on the attack at the blue line. While that CAN be a good thing, the way they are executing it is not. Johnston also wants a high volume of shots, so a lot of the times, the defensemen will be the ones shooting the puck hoping for a bounce, rebound, or deflection because, of course, the opposition will defer to defensemen shooting from the point rather than Crosby, Kessel, or Malkin ripping one from the slot or wing. While the volume of shots is high under Johnston (and there have been some games where they’ve struggled to get shots on net), the quality is very low, AND again, he’s handcuffing his stars. Your defensemen should not be shooting the puck more than your money-makers. It’s my belief the Penguins are not a legit threat while Johnston is behind the bench. It’s just not the right system to scare any opponent in contention. It’s a system that does not give the talent on this team the opportunity to shine. 

And I won’t even dive into the personnel decisions by Johnston. Dejan Kovacevic of DK on Pittsburgh Sports has an awesome column on these same frustrations of the Penguins, and he gives some staggering stats on ice time for the players. It’s a rude awakening if you don’t already know. 

I’m not in the room with the players or coaches, and I’m not in the front office with the executives that run this team, but body language on the ice can tell a mighty story, and the story it’s telling me is that this team does not like to play for Johnston. They may not have a vendetta against him, but I don’t think that Crosby is a happy camper right now. Just look at him on the bench. He looks unmotivated. That’s not Sidney Crosby. And that’s not what you want your captain to be. I think Sid showed he can still lead this team by what he did Tuesday night against Florida, but I believe the only way this team makes a legit run at another Cup is with someone else behind the bench. 

The trend has gone on long enough.


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