The Pittsburgh Penguins, an 8 seed in this year’s NHL playoffs, were bested in five one-goal contests by the Presidents’ Trophy winning New York Rangers on April 24, 2015. The Pittsburgh squad combined for eight goals over that time. Evgeni Malkin had 0 points. Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t pitch a single shutout. There were times defensemen floated (Ben Lovejoy) and there were times face offs were lost. The Penguins need to change, obviously, but what they need to change might not be what you think.
I know, I know, a first round playoff exit, that hurts. That really, really hurts. But you see..there’s some strange misconceptions in this world, mostly on social media, that this team needs to change all the wrong things. So to illustrate these (misguided) ideas I have some of them in black and white (and maybe a little bit of twitter blue), straight from the fingers of the masses and I’m going to tell you why those are not the issues and what those issues actually are, so let’s do it!
- Josh Yohe –
Josh Yohe is an authority on Penguins hockey so this tweet actually surprises me quite a bit. The issue with scoring goals, with the system that is in place, is that it depends largely on the defense. Defense in this case should mean Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy and at the very bottom of the depth chart, Rob Scuderi. Defense in this series did not have four of those top five names. It is difficult to run a structured breakout, which is key to defeating teams like the Rangers, without the structure. Think about it this way: Paul Martin was the most experienced Penguin on this team for over a month, he had to carry guys like Ben Lovejoy (who should not be seeing anything higher than third pairing minutes), and Rob Scuderi, all while down a defenseman every night. This is not the Pittsburgh Penguins backbone. This team needs Letang, Maatta, and Pouliot. It got some help from Dumoulin and Chorney during this series but there is no way to replace those defensemen definitively.
Secondly, Sidney Crosby had a hand in or scored exactly half of the team’s offensive output. Half. That is simply absurd and he was chugging like the little engine that could all series. (I have more on Malkin’s performance, but that’s for a little bit later.)
Verdict: Not Crosby or Malkin’s fault since the breakout was broken
2. “VBstone” –
This tweet illustrates one of the newest trends in the Penguins fandom. I like to call it “Blame Brandon Sutter” because that is really all it is. Penguins, and really all sports fans, love a good scapegoat. For a while it was Sill then he got traded, then it was Adams and he got sat. So you see, all that was left was Beau Bennett and Brandon Sutter. It’s easy to put Brandon Sutter up next to 2009 Jordan Staal and be underwhelmed, but it’s also easy to forget Sutter usually plays with whoever they toss at him while Staal played with the streaky and scrappy Tyler Kennedy and the PK machine Matt Cooke. Look, Sutter isn’t perfect but that doesn’t mean everything is his fault. He has one of the best “off the rush” scoring moves in the league. It’s one move and he still scores plenty on it because it’s good. He’s on the third line and, yes, could be better, but making it seem like every time he touches the puck the forecheck dies is wrong. That’s Rob Scuderi’s job.
Verdict: Sutter could be better but it’s not his fault.
Okay, I’m going to be honest, I like where this is going and for one of the two players mentioned it makes total sense. Sidney Crosby deserved a ton of ice time, he got it when they could give it to them, and he also helped set up the Penguins only goal in Game 5. He led the Penguins forwards with 24:04 ice time in Game 5 and played almost 30 seconds on the penalty kill. That is all well and good, but let’s address the elephant in the room here — Evgeni Malkin didn’t look like Evgeni Malkin.
He told us he’s fine, he said he’s okay – he lied. Players in the playoffs and important games play when they shouldn’t and Evgeni Malkin, who did have the second highest ice time on the forward side with over 23 minutes, should not have been playing. Watch 71 skate on the ice for any amount of time when healthy and you learn his stride, a leaning forward style where he keeps his big frame almost bent in half when in full flight. Watch him skate this series and his core is nearly immobile. Now, I’m not a doctor but his skating, his lack of his booming slapper, and his decrease in core motion in general (notice the increase in footwork and arms and decrease in body motion) screams back injury. It’s actually painfully obvious if you are looking for it, like I was in Game 5. Every shift was a struggle for him, but he did it anyways and after the game wanted to apologize. No really. He said this to reporters, “I want to say sorry to the fans,” that’s accountability to a fault.
Verdict: Malkin was walking wounded and Crosby got his ice time when penalties didn’t ruin the flow.
4. Dylan Burnett –
I have no problem with this tweet at all. This is what the Penguins did. However, I think it was meant as a criticism when that should not have been the case. The Rangers do this thing, it’s actually really weird if you know what to look for, where they load everyone up on the side of the ice they see the puck carrier on and force turnovers. It makes the sick passing game the Penguins pride themselves on really tough and makes them susceptible to the Rangers insane foot speed. This, combined with the aforementioned defensive corps comprised of “Paul Martin and his band of Merry Men” meant the dump and chase.
But it’s not really an issue because it’s an adjustment. Wait… a what? That’s right an adjustment. Adjusting to how a team plays and playing them to combat that is huge in the playoffs and something this franchise has struggled with in the past, so good for them dumping and chasing. It showed they understood and were fighting the competition. Of course, it’s not pretty and they could have win more of those puck battles, but it wasn’t all bad.
Verdict: Dump and chase isn’t wrong.
All in all there are issues this team needs to fix, and some painfully obvious ones at that. Intensity and closing ability should be at the top of the team’s off-season to-do list, directly beneath depth. Because Crosby and Malkin are great and will continue to be great, but you can’t squeeze water out of a stone.
So here’s some ideas of what they should do: this upcoming season the Penguins should give both Kasperi Kapanen and Oskar Sundqvist a real NHL shot and I believe, barring anything crazy, they will. Those kinds of moves are the ones that help. Buying out Scuderi and playing guys like Pouliot and Dumoulin who fit the system better are the kind of changes they need, not something silly like trading a great player in their prime for draft picks.
Trades should be discussed though. The Penguins got what they needed out of the James Neal trade in Hornqvist and they’d do well to get younger and get more guys who willing to stand in the blue paint (they also could use a few more second and third round draft picks). This team needs guys who work and work hard, they need to instill the idea that you don’t take a shift off. The big four understand that, now go fill the roster with other guys who do.
Finally I will leave you with a tweet from the great folks at Benstonium that puts my point into perspective:
Two years ago the public wanted to trade the MVP of this series for the Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury. They wanted to run him out of town with pitchforks and fire.
Let’s hold off on those trigger fingers about doing something drastic again. This team went in the right direction this year with its system and some of its young guys. Keep the big pieces and shift the little ones, just like they kept Fleury.