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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Hold Those Bobbleheads

February 24, 2003

Everybody's heard the story. Little boy, cries wolf, gets attention but then ends up being hung out to dry when the real thing shows up drooling on his doorstep. It's one of those cautionary tales you're told when you're little. It's supposed to teach you some semblance of common sense, manners, and at least one way to handle a really angry animal.

These tales aren't told as much any more. Today stories mostly admonish—don't subscribe to porn on the Internet, don't defraud the federal government, blah, blah, blah. But morality tales serve a purpose and you'd hope their lessons wouldn't be lost even as they themselves fall out of vogue.

Two weeks ago, when Penguins' General Manager Craig Patrick sold off another of the league's top point producers for what most of the hockey press labeled "warm bodies," the Penguins were worried enough about fan reaction that they made sure the bobbleheads they gave away at the next game were passed out to fans as they exited the building, not as they came in. Whether that was an effort to get people to stay for the game itself or rather a preventative measure to forestall a potentially dangerous shower of heavy objects toward center ice is open to debate.

However, what is beyond debate is the happy spin Patrick tried to put on the deal. Patrick said the deal would immediately make the Penguins a better team to which the entire hockey world responded with laughter. Some fans threatened more than that, but overall the reaction was one-sided, it agreed that Patrick was lying through his teeth.

But here's the really scary part, maybe he wasn't.

All right, there's no way even the best prescription peyote could make Patrick believe that, at least as far as talent goes, the Penguins are better off without Kovalev. That's simply ludicrous, but as far as team chemistry goes, Patrick may have a point.

Since the trade the Penguins are a pedestrian 3-4, but underneath that number lies a different story. In those seven games the Penguins held the second-highest scoring team in the league, the St. Louis Blues, to one goal. They also split two games with the division-leading New Jersey Devils who are the second stingiest team in the NHL, letting in an average of just two goals per game on the season. Yet the Penguins—lack of goal scorers and all—netted at least three goals in both contests versus New Jersey last week.

Then there was the thrilling overtime win against the perennially gritty Edmonton Oilers in which the Penguins, believe it or not, actually out-worked a team know for its work ethic. Not only that, Pittsburgh scored four goals in the game for the second straight game—a surprise in and of itself being that this team just lost another of the highest scorers in the league.

As for the losses during this stretch, there was the aforementioned split with New Jersey and a loss to Ottawa, you know the team that holds the league's top record and leads the league in goals scored. There was also a 1-0 loss in New York to the Rangers, and the expected loss to Colorado.

The Colorado Avalanche are the closest thing the NHL is going to get to the Penguins of the early 1990s for a long time. They feature a Hall of Fame center and team leader, a Hall of Fame winger, and a Hall of Fame goaltender. The only thing they don't have is Scotty Bowman or Bob Johnson, may he rest in peace, behind the bench. But they make up for it by having Rob Blake (probably another Hall of Famer) and Adam Foote along their blueline. Nobody outside of Detroit can even pretend to match such talent right now, so that the Penguins lost here shouldn't surprise anybody.

Yet, even though the Penguins may have less top-tier talent than they did two weeks ago, they may actually be better off for it despite what their record reflects.

Even in their latest losses, this team looked like they cared. Not just for a random period or two, but for entire contests. The Penguins caring, during a regular season home game? Not only did it happen, it happened more than once and the fans responded to the effort.

Again, this team isn't near as talented as it was before it started selling off proven point scorers, but if this team is more motivated now then they were before, Craig Patrick might be on to something.

It's not as if the Penguins were steamrolling toward the Stanley Cup with Alexei Kovalev, or with Robert Lang—or even with Jaromir Jagr for that matter. So if it takes a player like Joel Bouchard on your team to remind you that hockey is about running home early from school so you can watch Mario Lemieux play the sport; that this a game and it should be fun for players and fans alike, then so be it.

There will certainly be those who say that we've seen this all before, and sadly they do have a point. The Penguins have a long history of changing cast without really changing character.

When the organization traded Stu Barnes in early 1999 for an attitude named Matt Barnaby it paid off for about two weeks. Then when Mario returned to the ice two years later only to get felt-up like every night was another senior prom, the organization went out and got tough with the likes of Krzysztof Oliwa. That toughness lasted for about two weeks too. But with every deal, be it for a Kris Beech or a Rick Berry, there was Craig Patrick beaming with success as the Penguins slid in the standings.

But what if this time it's different? What if this time the country club has finally realized it's really the low-rent district? Isn't that progress?

If the team now understands that there's no one to bail them out but themselves, aren't they better off than they were two weeks ago? If the Penguins finally realize that they can't sleepwalk their way through the regular season and then try to turn on both their game and their fans the day playoff tickets go on sale, isn't that a large step in the right direction?

It is—if it's true. But here's something even more frightening.

What if this time the Penguins really are better, what if this time Craig Patrick really was telling the whole truth and nothing but. Only what if this time no one believes it?

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and believes that, at least for the time being, having a Penguin team with heart is far more important than having a Penguin team with talent.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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