Taking quick break from my blog series on musical influences, a new one coming after the Easter holiday by the way, to talk a little Penguins hockey.
Well last night was the end of a lackluster season. It was season full of stretches where the Pens looked unbeatable and then stretches where they looked like they didn’t have a clue what they were doing on the ice. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Penguins made it to the play-offs for a record setting 13th straight season. Unfortunately, those Penguins who looked like they didn’t have a clue showed up for the play-off series against the New York Islanders!
You have to hand it to the Isles, they play a very defensive style with no real stars on the team but Barry Trotz got that team to buy into the system he put in place, lock stock and barrel. Their defense was stifling and their forwards were always moving. I can’t count how many times the Pens would have the puck along the boards, below the face-off dots, stop and look, then have the puck taken away by an Islanders player who didn’t stop skating. Or the Pens player would blindly throw the puck to the center of the ice. Most likely to an Isles player. New York’s defense on the other hand, always seemed to be able to get the puck and move it out quick to a breaking Isles forward. It’s probably a lot easier to do when you have 3 guys already back in the d-zone and the lone Pens forechecker is outnumbered. Plus, as a number of Pens players have been quoted after the game 4 loss, the Isles just wanted it more.
Now New York is heading to the next round and the Pens are heading to the golf course. Penguins management needs to figure out a new identity for this team. Gone are the days of the last two Stanley Cups where they beat teams with speed and talent alone. Oh, they still have the talent but the stars are older and a little bit slower. As much as Head Coach Mike Sullivan employed the system that has always worked for them in the past, it’s a system that is no longer suited for this team! Time to evolve Pittsburgh.
No let’s not be foolish. They are not going to blow up the core of this team in the off season. Sid isn’t going anywhere because he’s the best player in the world, in spite of only having one assist in the play-offs. Letang isn’t going anywhere, although they may want to tell him to or not make him pinch so much. Malkin isn’t going anywhere either. In spite of putting up some of Pittsburgh’s meager points, in their lone round of the play-offs, he is still a top player in this league but he is going to have to adjust his game…evolve Geno. Mario did it, as have many other players in NHL history who aren’t as young as they used to be. Guentzel isn’t going anywhere because, why would you want that?? The consensus though, seems to be Kessel, Maatta and Hornqvist may find themselves as the sacrificial lambs for a promise of a better tomorrow. Kessel has either lost it or is so deep in his own head that there is know telling from game to game, what Kessel you are going to get, Phil The Thriller or Phil The Bitter Pill. Maatta is young and has glimpses of quality defensive work but that can’t make up for the moments when his game is completely off or the perception that it’s off. Hornqvist is a guy that you hate to lose but he’s getting older, and like we saw this play-offs, his offensive output is not equal to the extracurricular stuff after the whistle that gets him in the penalty box. The most important factor in all three of these guys is that they are all commanding hefty salaries that could be used to get younger, faster and more hungry to win.
Good news for the future of the Penguins, they still have the best player in the word. If Malkin needs any motivation to change his game, just look at Sid. He’s always been an offensive powerhouse and defensively sound but this season he defensive work has been exemplary and he’s turned himself into a bonafide Selke Trophy candidate. Offense, defense, face-offs…Sid is like a shorter Ron Francis these days. Another good thing the Pens have going for them, they still have their first round draft pick. To get younger, you have to start with the draft. Of the few first rounders the Pens have actually drafted over the past several years, only Maatta is still with the team….for now. It’s time for the Pens to start drafting for the future with an eye on the now. Another plus for the team is that the Pittsburgh Penguins also have ownership who care. Mario’s been there before! He knows what it’s like to win it all and I dare say, hates to lose. He’s gone with GM Jim Rutherford because he feels Rutherford gives the Pens the best chance to win. All the pieces weren’t there like we thought this year. Or the pieces we had weren’t as top quality as we thought. Or our eyes were seeing them through the rose colored glasses of Stanley Cups past but I believe that Rutherford has the stuff to make some magical moves to get this team back where it needs to be. Does Sullivan have the will and the ability to build a new identity around the older core that he has…well that remains to be seen.
Until next hockey season….Go Bucs and let’s get this Steelers draft going already!