Who is my nominee for the most bewildering and most confused team in the NHL? The runaway winner is the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have been that way for several years now.
You remember the Penguins? They drafted the next link in Canada’s golden hockey chain dating back to Maurice Richard, Sydney Crosby, and then followed that up by drafting perhaps the most talented Russian in the NHL, Evgeni Malkin. It seemed that the Penguins were going to be the NHL’s next dynasty team. They were not only going to win the Stanley Cup, they were going to win Cups.
In anticipation, the city of Pittsburgh finally made owner Mario Lemieux happy by advancing money to build the long needed new arena for the Penguins long term future. Everything was coming up roses.
In 2009 it seemed that the promise was reaching its potential when Crosby and company captured the Stanley Cup. Malkin won the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. It was supposed to be the first of many.
Since then it has all gone wrong. Pittsburgh has suffered upset defeat after defeat in the playoffs including humiliations by a vastly inferior talented Montreal team; a disgraceful four game sweep by the Boston Bruins; and a horrible loss to arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers in which goaltender Marc Andre Fleury resembled a sieve. The only team the Penguins can beat in the playoffs any more is lowly Columbus, a team that has never won a playoff series.
The men who had put together and guided this powerhouse are long gone. General Manager Ray Shero is now the general manager of New Jersey. Coach Dan Bylsma is now coaching Buffalo. The team that was supposed to be the NHL favorite year after year is no longer favored even in its own conference. Its projected future has been grabbed by the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings.
Speaking of Chicago, historically that is who the current Pittsburgh team closely resembles. Old time fans will remember the Chicago Blackhawks of the 1960s. They too had the current link on Canada’s golden hockey chain, Bobby Hull. And doing his best Malkin impersonation was Stan Mikita. And a host of other talented players like the current Penguins have had, too many to count.
But history says that Hull and company only won one Stanley Cup, and that was an upset in 1961. Despite being the most talented team of the 1960s, less talented Toronto and Montreal would win the rest of the Cups during that decade.
This year the Penguins sit a modest seventh in their conference, no longer favored to win it all. And if the playoffs were to start there is a good chance the Penguins will meet the New York Rangers, a team that has had their number the last few years. That is one of the last teams the Penguins need to see. What is even worse is that if they were to go into a slump the unthinkable might happen: The Penguins, a team that has Crosby and Malkin might actually miss the playoffs- something that happened to Hull and Mikita in 1969.
As to what went wrong, this writer would like an accurate answer just like everybody else. Certainly one of the main culprits is Fleury who is no longer ranked as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL. Certainly he can catch fire and take his team back to the top… but he can also be the sieve. Uncertain goaltending does not win Stanley cups. Overall defensive play has been bad. Bad defensive teams do not win Stanley Cups either.
These seem to be the most obvious problems but is that really the truth? Is it some irrational spiritual problem that people cannot put their finger on that is holding the Penguins back? Do they lack toughness? Do they need to resurrect perhaps the greatest psychological coach in history, Vince Lombardi of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers to get to the bottom of what went wrong?
As long as this team has Crosby and Malkin, they have the talent to win it all again. But there is one truth that will occur in the playoffs this year- if the Penguins make the playoffs. They will be the underdog team this time, something that was unthinkable just half a decade ago.