Saturday, April 25, 2015

Crosby, Malkin didn't sign on for this


Friday, April 24, 2015, 11:31 p.m.


Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is checked by Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers during the first period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) 



NEW YORK — Promises get broken.

So do hockey franchises.

When those happenings coincide, something has to change.

So even though the Penguins don't want to end the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era, I'm not sure they're going to have a choice in the matter.

It's not that the franchise centers are unhappy. (They are, but they've been that way since last summer). They've lost faith in the direction of the franchise. And I'm not sure what can be said — especially to Malkin — to make things right.

Something has to be done in the wake of the Penguins' 2-1 series-ending overtime loss to the New York Rangers in Game 5 on Friday at Madison Square Garden that eliminated them from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Otherwise, the Penguins might have to sell another early playoff exit and a trade they'd rather not make.

Co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux could have a lot more to consider than whether to let pride — or stubbornness — get in the way of doing what's best for business. They must hire a new general manager, one who understands the NHL's not-so-new salary-cap dynamic, a hockey boss with autonomy to make hockey moves.

Because this isn't what Crosby and Malkin signed on for when each agreed to a second long-term contract at below market-value salary.

The Penguins are unrecognizable. They've gone from the marquee to the second stage. Or, put in hockey terms, from Stanley Cup contender to playoff pretender.

Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins watches as a shot goes wide on Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers during the first period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Injuries didn't help, but this season was far from sabotaged by them. Rather it was a last gasp from a franchise that once promoted its new arena as destiny's new home.

From within, the home appears to be crumbling. The organization has degenerated into a toxic mix of a dysfunctional hockey operations department and a business side too occupied with selling youth hockey than winning and scoring.

Winning and scoring is what Crosby and Malkin were sold, too.

This season, the winning and scoring dipped. By no coincidence, so did the TV ratings, interest in playoff tickets and the confidence of Crosby and Malkin.

Bad luck ruined the Penguins' best-laid plans for the prime years of Crosby and Malkin. And certainly neither Crosby nor Malkin has done enough over the past six postseasons to bring back the Cup. But they're not the problem.

Actually, they've masked a lot of organizational problems, including but not limited to an aging roster, infatuation with puck-moving defensemen, the win-now (at the expense of draft picks) approach and the equally inexcusable and embarrassing failure to find wingers for two future Hall of Fame centers.

Do you know who shouldn't be playing with better wingers than Crosby and Malkin? Connor McDavid. But he will with Edmonton next season.

Blame Ray Shero or Jim Rutherford. Both GMs blew it when it came to Crosby and Malkin. Two years ago, Crosby and Malkin played with their least-talented supporting cast … until this past year, when it was worse.

Most depressing is the bleak future.

The Penguins won't escape salary-cap purgatory because so much of their payroll is tied into too few players, several of whom are well past their primes and provide little trade value. The biggest problem area (forwards) is also the weakest part of the prospect system. And there aren't enough draft picks because of foolish trades.

This is a mess, and Crosby and Malkin aren't two of the world's greatest cleaners.

They are two of the world's greatest hockey players, and they've always taken less money to give the Penguins a chance to win.

They were promised far better than their bosses have delivered.

Lemieux, of all people, should know what broken promises from ownership can do to hockey superstars.

They can make the superstars want to leave.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.


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Friday, April 24, 2015

Tracing the Penguins' demise


Thursday, April 23, 2015, 10:48 p.m.






Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Penguins players Marc-Andre Fleury (from left), Paul Martin, and Ben Lovejoy are all tangled up with each other against the Rangers during Game 4 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Consol Energy Center Wednesday, April 22, 2015. The Rangers won 2-1 to gain a 3-1 advantage.


Gentlemen, start your golf carts.

The Penguins are a loss away from a sixth consecutive early postseason exit. How did they find themselves in such a deep hole a mere week into the playoffs?
The top five reasons, in order:
1. INJURIES
Doesn't make for incendiary sports talk. It's just true. And it's amazing to watch otherwise rational human beings demand the beheadings of everyone in charge when the clear and simple truth is that the Penguins are ravaged beyond recognition.
That doesn't excuse other pertinent issues. But to willfully ignore injuries as the primary one is insane.
Humor me here. Put down the pitchfork, take a deep breath and at least appraise the injury situation for what it is. Just for a moment.
The Penguins are missing a productive, lightning-fast, top-line team leader in Pascal Dupuis. That alone rips a giant hole in the roster. But that's only the beginning. They also are without a game-changing, Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman in Kris Letang. A guy who'd be playing HALF THE GAME if he were in the lineup.
Oh, and they are sans a rising star in Olli Maatta and a solid top-4 D-man in Christian Ehrhoff. I keep hearing Ehrhoff was an unnecessary signing. He sure looked necessary when he was averaging 21 minutes with a plus-15 rating through three months. Before a brain injury ruined his season.
How many teams overcome that kind of roster devastation?
The truth can be terribly inconvenient, I know, especially when an angry mob is forming at the center of town. But that doesn't make it any less true.
2. TWO-STAR MODEL CRACKS AGAIN
Last year, it was Geno up and Sid down. This year, it's the opposite. No other team in this salary-cap era pays its top two players as much. That makes filling adequately around them a near-impossible task. It means the two must be dominant if the Penguins are to have any chance of a lengthy postseason run.
Crosby has been very good in this series. Malkin has been invisible. If his back is as bad as some believe, it seems curious that he has continued to practice regularly. And maybe it's unfair to compare anyone to Mario Lemieux, but even on nights when Lemieux's back was so bad he needed help lacing his skates, he found ways to make key plays.
On the other hand, if Malkin really is that banged up, add him as another crucial piece of testimony to Category 1 above.
3. GM MALFUNCTION
I defended Jim Rutherford regularly through the season but also said he could only fairly be judged on how his acquisitions performed in the playoffs.
Some have looked good (Patric Hornqvist, Max Lapierre), others awful (David Perron and Daniel Winnik, a human clinic on how to get scored against at even strength). The rest of the bag is mixed.
Where I once would have given Rutherford an ‘A' for his work, I'd now give him a ‘C.' I was dead wrong on the Ben Lovejoy-Simon Despres trade. It looks hideous. Ian Cole for Robert Bortuzzo on the other hand ...
Rutherford also lost his bet that yet another injury outbreak wouldn't leave him short-handed toward the end of the season. It did. He refused to own it.
Would the mistakes be enough to fire him? Not for me, because, again, Rutherford doesn't have anything resembling the team he was supposed to have.
4. RAY SHERO'S DRAFTS
I applauded Shero's ownership-mandated, win-now approach, and he did draft some talented young defensemen. But somehow, some way, somewhere, in eight years, you have to come up with a forward or three who can help.
5. GARAGE LEAGUE
A team such as the Penguins, topped with rare skill, is hurt more than others by the return of maim-and-mug hockey.
This team still has a chance, mind you. It could still make its GM look good.
But if I'm a betting man, I'm betting the only Penguins-related noise we hear this weekend is the vroom-vroom-vroom of golf carts.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.


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Thursday, April 23, 2015

This type of hockey is a serious problem


Wednesday, April 22, 2015, 11:27 p.m.
 
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates alongside Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 20, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)


We've seen a lot of playoff hockey in these parts during the Sidney Crosby era.

What we're watching right now is barely hockey at all.

It sure isn't what the sport should look like. And it definitely isn't worth the price of admission.

The 377th consecutive sellout crowd to watch a Penguins home game was awesome Wednesday night. A constant buzz of noise — not to mention a mix of cheering, chanting and jeering — turned Consol Energy Center into the Stanley Cup Final version of the old Civic Arena.

The House Sid Got Built rocked like the Igloo while the Penguins essentially fought for any realistic chance to upset the top-seeded New York Rangers.

And like every game in this series, which the Rangers lead 3-1, Game 4 was close, creating the sense of tension that is unique to the emotional pendulum that is the chase for Lord Stanley's silver chalice.

But Lord Stanley liked hockey.

So I'm guessing he would hate what the quest for his Cup has become.

It's not hockey. It's a joke.

I could not care less if playoff teams have been within a goal of one another almost 80 percent of the time during the postseason. The closeness of contests is not all that I like to write about hockey, and I'm guessing it's not the only reason anybody likes to watch hockey.

The best teams make the playoffs, so the games should be close.

They shouldn't be boring.

This first-round series between the Penguins and Rangers has been boring and ugly and only watchable if you own a vested interest — and, really, even then it has required effort.

Playoff hockey needn't be high scoring. Heck, the two best hockey games I've covered finished with scores of 2-1.
But I dare suggest tape-to-tape passes aren't too much to ask. I'm not sure I've seen more than a dozen through four games between the Penguins and Rangers, and these teams don't exactly lack skill.

Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Martin St. Louis have won two scoring titles each. Rick Nash is one of the premier power forwards of this generation. Paul Martin can move the puck with anybody. So can Keith Yandle.

I'm talking about supremely skilled hockey players, but all I'm doing is talking about them because their skill is not allowed to show.

The Rangers went deep into the opening period of Game 4 without registering a shot, as if it wasn't hard enough watching the Penguins do almost the same thing in Game 3. In the second period of both games, the teams treated the puck as though it were a grenade.

The block-first mentality has ruined offensive hockey. So have the defensive tendencies of even the most offensive-minded coaches.

Mike Johnston has transformed the Penguins into a chip-and-chase group of muckers. It's like he doesn't know he works for the most gifted player in the history of hockey.

With due respect to commissioner Gary Bettman, who attended Game 4, the officials aren't helping, either.
Bettman told the Trib's Jason Mackey “the standard (for officiating) has not been abandoned.”

It should be because the standard was unacceptable all season.

I don't believe referees are screwing the Penguins on calls, but it's clear there is enough obstruction in this series to make a fan hunger for the comparatively freewheeling late 1990s.

You know, back when nobody could get into the offensive zone.

Neither the Penguins nor Rangers have averaged 30 shots through four games. They've combined for 97 in the past 123 minutes of what I guess can be called action.

Look, the NHL has a history of allowing itself to become too defensive, and then the league fixes the problem.
But somebody needs to acknowledge there is a problem.

So I've got a solution for a man who I genuinely believe is the best commissioner in all of sports. This offseason, take the rule-making powers away from general managers whose jobs are always on the line.

Give that power to the owners, Mr. Bettman.

Because they're the ones asking customers to pay for a product that isn't any good — even in the playoffs.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.


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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Johnston's biggest task? Speaking up for the Penguins

Politeness is often a desirable trait we look for in people. The ability to be friendly and avoid confrontation or damaging speech is often lauded as a mature, positive quality for a person to possess.
In the case of Mike Johnston, politeness is a vice, not a virtue. Johnston’s refusal to criticize the referees after the Penguins’ Game 3 loss to the Rangers was a disservice to his team, which was marginally outplayed by New York, and clearly hamstrung by the officiating.
Before you dismiss this statement as a homer claim by a columnist who picked the Penguins to spring an upset in seven games, think about what you’ve seen.
The officials policed the early stages of Game 1 with vigor, calling a boatload of penalties on the Penguins, most of which were richly deserved, and thought to be part of an effort on their part to intimidate the Rangers. When the Penguins were trying to get back in the game later on, they were subject to the typical clutch-and-grab garbage that has largely ruined the NHL game. Nothing was called.
If something is a penalty in the first period, it should be the same in the third.
Period.
In total, the series has seen nearly twice as many penalties called on the Penguins than on the Rangers. That’s fine, so long as there is obvious evidence that the Penguins are playing a more physical, borderline style. There isn’t, though. The Rangers are doing just as much clutching and grabbing, often at crucial times of the game. During Game 3, Sidney Crosby’s stick was held for several seconds on what turned out to be a Patric Hornqvist goal.
Seeing two teams apparently held to different standards, and seeing the criteria for what constitutes a penalty change as a game wears on should disgust fans of the sport.
Johnston needs to step up to the plate and make his case for his team. If he really thinks that the “battles” are enjoyable, something he said after Game 3, then he’s off his rocker. The teams aren’t battling, they’re doing blatantly illegal things on the ice while the officials look the other way. Johnston’s team is the one getting punished more often for it, to boot.
It’s hard to imagine Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or any other Penguins player being happy with their coach claiming that blatant obstruction is really just “good battling.”
No one is asking for perfection when it comes to the way the game is called, but some measure of consistency would be nice. There have been plenty of missed or botched calls on the Rangers, as well, none more egregious than a phantom tripping penalty drawn by Taylor Chorney in Game 2. Chorney simply fell down, and the Ranger unfortunate enough to be in close proximity was sent off.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has openly campaigned for his team, suggesting that the Penguins are being too rough with goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who flopped so obviously in Game 3 that it brought to mind thoughts of former NBA center Vlade Divac, a large man often toppled by a light breeze. Johnston needs to emulate Vigneault, even if he doesn’t believe it is necessary.
Vigneault is making sure that the officials know he is unhappy, and perhaps it is working. He’s also convincing his guys that he has their backs, which can’t hurt from a morale standpoint. Johnston needs to level that particular playing field.
The Penguins are by no means out of this series. They’ve taken some good punches from the Rangers and come right back, and this series could easily be 2-1 the other way. They have competed hard for three games, and look to be a more than worthy challenger. Johnston has actually done well, too, when it comes to making tactical adjustments.
All he has to do now is send a message to the referees that, like his team, he won’t stop fighting until the bitter end. His charges are owed that much, and then some.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of “The Starkey & Mueller Show” from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.
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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Not enough goals, no chance for Pens

David Perron #39 of the Pittsburgh Penguins moves the puck between the defense of Jesper Fast #19 and Dan Girardi #5 of the New York Rangers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 20, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — David Perron hasn't scored in 15 games and it doesn't appear he will if the Penguins were to play another 15. Which, after Monday night's 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers, isn't looking too promising.
Daniel Winnik? Hasn't scored since March 28. Evgeni Malkin? Nothing since March 6.
That, folks, is the Penguins' second line. A scoring line, in name only.
The penalties, the careless stick infractions that have dogged the Penguins through the first three games of this series, continued unabated in Game 3. But those penalties, like injuries and spotty officiating, all legitimate complaints to varying degrees, are just mitigating factors in the Penguins' dilemma.
It was Monday and has been the Penguins' lack of scoring that will ultimately end the Penguins' season in the first round against the Rangers. Mark that down.
Credit the Rangers and their stifling brand of defense, clogging up the neutral zone and limiting chances, but this is about the Penguins. This is about a team that has collectively forgotten how to score and that's nothing new.
Saturday night's four-goal outburst in New York was the exception, not the rule for the Penguins who struggled mightily down the stretch to find the back of the net with any consistency. That offensive outburst at the Garden gave the Penguins some much-needed confidence but clearly it didn't carry over into Monday.
It was another slow start for the Penguins, who required 15 minutes to register their first shot and who have given up the first goal in each of the first three games. It wasn't until the final nine harried minutes of Game 3, that the Penguins were able to generate quality scoring chances or as much as sustain pressure against Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had faced just 11 shots through the first 40 minutes.
The Penguins' lone goal came from Patric Hornqvist on a fifth-effort rebound. OK, slight exaggeration but it was the kind of "greasy" goal as they say, that the Penguins need to score more of.
Malkin's wonky back is obviously preventing him from being the Malkin of old. But, like Perron, Malkin has passed on too many of the chances the Penguins have gotten.
"Geno had some looks, he has some speed," said coach Mike Johnston. "He had the work ethic. It will come for that line."
Just don't hold your breath.
The mid-season trades that brought Perron and Winnik to Pittsburgh were largely hailed at the time but haven't had the desired effect. Perron had 12 goals in 43 games for the Penguins but just two since Feb. 12. Winnik, a capable penalty killer currently miscast in a top-six role, had two goals in 21 games.
Perron and Winnik might go down as general manager Jim Rutherford's Alexei Ponikarovsky, except for the not-so small detail that Ponikarovsky only cost the Penguins the forgettable Luca Caputi and Martin Skoula. Clearly Rutherford is frustrated. The GM threw a profanity-laced tirade against a local columnist after Monday's game in the bowels of CEC. Perron cost the Penguins a first-round pick in this year's draft and Winnik cost a second-rounder in 2016.
Perron, a former 28-goal scorer, had three shots but has frustrated whether he's played on the first or second line.
"Some times you'd like to have chances back because you'd do something a little bit differently but these I 'd do exactly the same," he said.
Not to single out Perron, Winnik or Malkin. There's plenty of blame to go around. Blake Comeau isn't scoring and neither is Steve Downie or Beau Bennett, The list goes on.
And it's not to say there's weren't positives to take from Monday. They are still alive, being down 2-1 beats 3-0. They nearly tied the game in the frantic final moments and can build from that.
But it's all a moot point if the Penguins can't solve their scoring problems.
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Rutherford falling apart, too

Monday, April 20, 2015, 11:39 p.m.
 

Crisis is supposed to reveal true character, right?

General manager Jim Rutherford lost his cool after the Penguins' 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Monday night to fall within two defeats of a first-round elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

After exiting a media elevator and while walking with other reporters to the Penguins' dressing room, Rutherford addressed this columnist, a frequent critic since his hiring last June, in an obscenity-laced diatribe.

“Thanks for your support,” Rutherford said repeatedly.

“You're a (expletive) jerk,” Rutherford said repeatedly.

Rutherford followed the jerk comment with a suggestion to “go sell ice cream now,” then a challenge to look him in the eye, which I did while explaining my role as Trib Total Media's lead sports columnist.

My role is to provide opinion.

“Well, your opinion is (expletive),” Rutherford said.

As (expletive) as my opinion might be, it remains that Rutherford has botched an attempted retooling of the Penguins. If this unfortunate incident is any indication, he lacks the poise necessary to move that project foward.

Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, the Penguins' majority co-owners who attended Game 3 at Consol Energy Center, should make the call to hand over Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury to a general manager who cares less about what a columnist writes and more about the salary cap.

And Rutherford either doesn't care about or can't figure out that salary cap.

That's the only sense I can make of his Penguins having to play five of their final seven regular-season games with only five defensemen. Too close to the cap after the NHL trade deadline, the Penguins could not sustain injuries to defensemen Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff.

Rutherford inherited Letang and his $7.25 million cap hit.

But he added Ehrhoff, at a cost of $4 million against the cap, even though the last thing the Penguins needed last offseason was another veteran defenseman. Ray Shero, Rutherford's predecessor, had spent a majority of his draft picks stocking the Penguins' farm system with defensemen.

So, yeah, Rutherford's signing of Ehrhoff only enhanced my opinion that he was not qualified to improve the Penguins, who had stagnated under Shero's leadership after reaching the Cup Final in 2008, then winning the Cup in '09.

The day Rutherford was announced as general manager, I asked him about his final five years as GM with Carolina. In those years, Carolina never reached the playoffs.

Since the NHL instituted a salary cap for the 2005-06 season, only three of Rutherford's teams have qualified for the playoffs. The Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006 and lost to the Penguins in the '09 Eastern final.

Nine of the Penguins who dressed against the Rangers in Game 3, including backup goalie Thomas Greiss, were brought to the organization by Rutherford. He has brazenly continued Shero's penchant for trading draft picks for players to help the Penguins win now.

But the Penguins aren't winning now.

A top-four Eastern seed in each of the previous seven years, they did not qualify for the playoffs until the final night of the regular season and are in the postseason as the No. 8 seed.

A franchise branded for its offensive prowess, co-owned by the team's all-time leading scorer in Lemieux and employing two former two-time scoring champions in Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins finished 19th in goals during the regular season.

They have scored only two goals in their two losses to the Rangers during this series, which they likely would trail, 0-3, if not for Crosby's two-goal surge in a 4-3 win in Game 2 on Saturday night.

Have injuries derailed Rutherford's best-laid plans?

Absolutely.

But the Penguins' 343 man-games lost in the regular season were considerably fewer than the league-leading 529 in the last year of Shero's tenure.

Shero's final team won its division, albeit against weaker competition, and came within a win of returning to the Eastern final.

Under Rutherford, the Penguins have regressed.

They need a leader.

And on Monday night, Rutherford's behavior was far short of that.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.


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