When Sidney Crosby lifted the Stanley Cup in 2009, it was thought to be the first of a few for Crosby and the core for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Unfortunately, 2010 played out with disappointing results losing to Montreal in the second round as Jaroslav Halak stood on his head, Marc-Andre Fleury would give up a crushing game seven goal to Travis Moen in the second period, the results of which, I don’t believe Fleury has ever bounced back from. That series illustrated the ease in which teams could attack the Penguins and easily frustrate Crosby and Malkin. Fleury gave up four goals on 13 shots in the Penguins final loss and for the playoffs gave up 37 goals and a disappointing .891 save percentage in 13 games.
In 2011, it was left to Jordan Staal and Fleury to help overcome the personnel losses of Crosby (concussion), Evgeni Malkin (knee), and Matt Cooke (suspension) and though the team managed to get to a 3-1 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. They inexplicably blew the final three games as the offense suffered to mount much of an offensive attack against the Lightning’s 1-3-1 trap and goaltender Dwayne Roloson made the easy saves.
The criticisms of Dan Bylsma’s refusal to adjust the power play or other strategies began for the first time but many in the media and fans gave him a pass because of the injuries to Crosby and Malkin. Fleury struggled again giving up 17 goals with a lousy .899 save percentage in seven games.
Last year, it was more of the same as the lack of composure, lack of patience, and misplaced exuberance sank the Penguins in six games against the Flyers. Crosby and Malkin were easily taken off their game by the younger Flyers and played as if defensive hockey meant little in the way of winning hockey. It was the third playoff series in a row in which Bylsma could not stop the negative momentum or find ways to adjust to the Flyers offensive attack. The total collapse by the Penguins was only made more surreal by the unbelievable 26 goals in 6 games given up by Fleury with an embarrassing .834 save percentage.
Shero decided quickly to address the goaltending issues by acquiring Tomas Vokoun on June 4th from the Washington Capitals for a seventh round pick in the 2012 draft and signing the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent to a 2-year deal. Vokoun wasn’t brought in to take Fleury’s job, he was acquired to be a mentor and help protect Fleury from any fatigue, something Brent Johnson couldn’t do last season.
Prior to the draft, Ray Shero offered a 10-year $60 million deal to Jordan Staal but he was unable to convince him to stay in Pittsburgh. Staal wanted to play with his brother Eric in Carolina, so at the draft in Pittsburgh, Shero made the deal sending Staal to Carolina for the 8th overall pick, defense prospect Brian Dumoulin, and center Brandon Sutter. The Penguins would decide to pick Portland Winterhawks defenseman Derrick Pouliot with the 8th pick and with their own number one pick, 22nd overall, selected another defenseman, Olli Maatta from the London Knights.
Over the last few years, Shero has been criticized for failing to draft and develop another scoring forward since his very first pick in the 2006 draft (Jordan Staal). The Penguins highest scoring forward after Staal has been Dustin Jeffrey with 15 goals in 90 career games. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Shero’s draft philosophy, scouting department, or player development.
The acquisition of Sutter made sense as he could easily slide into the third line role vacated by Staal and in some cases, be an upgrade. Defensively, Staal’s performance against the Flyers on the penalty-kill was disappointing and he was never one to have a great winning percentage on faceoffs. Sutter was expected to be better in both facets of the game.
In free agency, Shero would sign 4th line left-winger Tanner Glass to replace the role vacated by Arron Asham’s free agency departure to the Rangers.
During the regular season, the goalie tandem of Fleury and Vokoun was more than good enough as they finished with .916 and .919 save percentage, respectively. Fleury was once again back on track during the regular season and the team in front of him was playing some great hockey, no more so than the unbeatable March run going 15-0 and all but wrapping up their stranglehold on the number one seed in the Easter Conference ahead of the Montreal Canadiens.
Just prior to the March run, Shero decided to sign Mark Eaton to help augment their depth on the blue line and while the team was winning games, they would make one monumental trade after another by acquiring future Hall of Fame right-winger Jarome Iginla, left-winger Brenden Morrow, defenseman Douglas Murray, and center Jussi Jokinen. The league just saw a team with a formidable core of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Kris Letang, James Neal, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin get an added boost of veteran leadership and important depth. It was as if the Penguins were telling the hockey world,
this year’s cup is ours.
Or so it seemed.
For reasons only Bylsma could know for sure, Iginla would be forced to play left-wing on the second line with Malkin and Neal, not right-wing with Crosby and Dupuis. The move didn’t work as Iginla struggled to accept passes coming out of the zone or being able to chip the puck out of the zone along the left-wing wall and glaringly obvious, coming back into the defensive zone to pick up his man. Iginla said all the right things about his move to the left side and didn’t say anything about his lack of action on the top power play unit or his positional placement when he did get some ice time on the power play.
One would wonder, how many coaches would want to mess with a future Hall of Famer?
In Pittsburgh, you know the only one.
Just as unsuccessful as the decision to move Iginla to left-wing was Bylsma’s decision to flip flop Morrow and Cooke on the third line with Sutter as neither has ever looked comfortable at right-wing and the acquisition effectively put the offensively inept Glass in the press box.
The Jokinen acquisition was purely to provide depth due to Crosby’s jaw injury, he played sparingly in the playoffs.
As for Murray, it was evident after the Islanders series the coaching staff didn’t have the confidence to use him, most notable during the team’s double-overtime loss to Boston in game three as he received just 17:08 of playing time. Murray’s lack of speed often resulted him losing the battles behind the net and in the corner, which it didn’t help he was often paired with Deryk Engelland or Matt Niskanen, neither player having played that well themselves.
In the playoffs, Bylsma had an embarrassment of riches or did he have fool’s gold?
That will be the difficult evaluation process for Shero as he was the person responsible to acquire the misused or quickly aging and slower players like Iginla, Morrow and Murray. It was Shero that decided to largely ignore a blue line that fell apart against Philadelphia the season prior and did little in the public’s eye to have younger defensemen like Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo get important development time in the NHL over veterans like Eaton and Engelland.
But at the end of the day for Bylsma, he had more pieces and talent than any coach could have ever dreamed of having at his service and his decisions to have the Penguins play an aggressive style against a patient defensive team lik the Bruins in the first two games at home, did not help the team. It did not help that the team scored 1 goal in two games at home while playing a wreck-less stretch pass attack.
It did not help Iginla was being misused while a power play couldn’t sniff the net.
It was too late even after Vokoun stood on his head in game three as the team couldn’t get a second goal behind Tuukka Rask and lost in double-overtime because a 41-year old Jaromir Jagr was able to sneak a hook into Malkin and steal the puck.
While much blame has been cast upon Bylsma for his stubborn refusal to change how the team moves the puck up the ice or maddening use of Iginla, he can’t help if his 28-year old star goaltender had a fourth consecutive playoff performance that has all but made one wonder, were the 2008 and 2009 playoff runs a fluke?
And let’s not ignore the fact that as much as Fleury had a rally killing softie in game two, this team hasn’t exactly done much playing in front of Vokoun.
During the regular season, Kris Letang played well enough defensively to get his name listed on the top 3 for the Norris Trophy but all he’s done in these playoffs is make that nomination a mockery for his soft play and wildly inconsistent positioning defensively. Letang and his free flowing hair woo the ladies but after another frustrating playoffs, you have to question whether he has the physical ability to take on the burden of being a number one defenseman.
While the team hasn’t played good enough defensively, they are still considered an offensive juggernaut and against the Bruins, they were nothing of the kind. That blame lies on the shoulder of Crosby and Malkin.
It is unfathomable to think both could go the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals without a single point between them. Malkin played in stretches dominating the ice but for some reason, likely a bad shoulder, he couldn’t score a goal to save his life in game three with close to 10 shots on goal, a few blocked, and a few missed the net. Malkin also completely shutdown in the third period of game two.
No composure, total frustration. Again.
One would wonder how anyone could shutdown Crosby but he’s been largely ineffective, a virtual no-show on the ice. For being the best player in hockey, in moments of greatness, he’s been non-existent. Crosby wasn’t the star in game seven against Detroit to win the Cup, it was Max Talbot’s 2-goal game that won it. Since then, he had 1 goal against the Canadiens, missed the Lightning loss, scored 3 goals against the Flyers, and this year 0 goals against the Bruins in the conference finals prior to his beating up inferior opponents in the first two rounds with seven goals.
Where are Crosby and Malkin during the team’s biggest time of need?
If you answered trying to fight Patrice Bergeron or bump into Rask, you would be right. Teams have found the recipe to beat the Penguins, it starts with agitating them at the core.
Now that the Penguins have lost again in disappointing fashion, it might be time to fix the team as they’re rotten to the core.