Thursday, June 26, 2014

Penguins not a team on the decline

By Scott Burnside
June 26, 2014

Mike Johnston answers questions at a press conference yesterday. (AP)

Funny how quickly perceptions can change about a player, a coach, an entire team. 

You’d swear that in the past month the Pittsburgh Penguins had completely lost their way, that they had lost all sense of what made them successful, that they had collectively been hit with the stupid stick. 

This has been an offseason of tremendous upheaval for a team that quickly established itself as one of the NHL’s elite franchises on and off the ice after the 2004-05 lockout. 

The Penguins underachieved once again in the playoffs, blowing a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers in the second round -- their fifth straight playoff loss to a lower-seeded team. 

That loss led to the firing of GM Ray Shero and, some weeks later, the dismissal of head coach Dan Bylsma by new GM Jim Rutherford. That was followed by a couple of missteps in finding a coach, as both Bill Peters (Carolina) and Willie Desjardins (Vancouver) were courted by the Pens but took jobs elsewhere. 

The search for a new coach -- who knew it would be so difficult to find a coach to stand on a bench behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? -- ended Tuesday with the hiring of highly regarded junior and former NHL assistant coach Mike Johnston. 

Now, there is no question that this Penguins team, in spite of its star-studded roster and the presence of perennial MVP candidates Malkin and Crosby, who won his second Hart Trophy in Las Vegas on Monday night, has some work to do in rejoining the NHL’s elite. 

They have been lapped in terms of building a consistent Cup contender by the L.A. Kings,Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins

Since back-to-back trips to the finals in 2008 and 2009 and a Cup win in 2009, they have made it out of the second round just once, when they were swept in the conference final by Boston in 2013. 

There has been something missing come playoff time, be it leadership, character, grit or some combination of those qualities. Sometimes you don’t know what it is that you don’t have until it’s gone, like a Max Talbot or a Bill Guerin (now an assistant GM with the Pens who was instrumental in helping the Pens find that championship tenor in 2009). 

Johnston will be joined on the bench by veteran NHLer and former Penguin Rick Tocchet, who has a close relationship with owner Mario Lemieux. We’ve long felt Tocchet has deserved another shot as a head coach after a brief tenure in Tampa during a period of great unrest with that franchise. If guys don’t want to play hard for Tocchet, they don’t want to play hard. 

Johnston, like Peters and Desjardins, has been biding his time for an NHL head coaching gig. He’ll face significant pressure in Pittsburgh, the likes of which Peters and Desjardins will not face in Carolina and Vancouver, but our dealings with Johnston suggest that won’t be an issue. 

He has experience as an NHL assistant in Vancouver and Los Angeles, and he’s enjoyed tremendous success coaching high end junior talent in Portland where his teams have played an up-tempo style that should translate well to the skill set in Pittsburgh. 

A lot of the questions coming out of Pittsburgh in recent weeks have centered on whether the franchise has lost its luster. And sure it is a bit perplexing as to why folks wouldn’t be lining up to coach this team. 

But as for whether this offseason signals a period of decline for Pittsburgh, consider this: The Penguins have sold out every game since February 2007 and have a season ticket waiting list of more than 9,000. They have almost doubled their fan base penetration since 2007 and led all U.S. local TV ratings for five straight years. 

Not even when the Penguins won back-to-back Cups in 1992-93 did the team sell out an entire season. 

In short, Pittsburgh is a big-time NHL market that has raised the stakes higher on and off the ice, higher than perhaps anywhere in the league -- including Canadian markets. 

That they have failed to deliver the goods on a consistent basis in the playoffs is worrisome for both the team and its significant fan base. The fact that ownership has made dramatic moves to correct this suggests that they haven’t taken for granted the strides they’ve made. 

Would ownership like a do-over on a couple of things this offseason? Sure. 

The gap between firing Shero and Bylsma contributed to the outward perception there was some sort of disconnect within the ownership group about what needed to be done to make the team better. 

The news that the Penguins had been spurned by Desjardins when they thought he was going to be their man also contributed to the angst being felt around the team that somehow things were falling to pieces, that Pittsburgh was somehow, suddenly an undesirable hockey destination. 

But in the grand scheme of things, those are small issues and will be forgotten quickly provided the Penguins have made the right decision with Johnston and provided Rutherford is able to negotiate his way through what will be a tricky offseason with a plethora of pending unrestricted free agents and some serious salary cap issues. 

None of those are givens, of course. 

There are no guarantees that any of this works out for the Penguins. 

But there appears to be a shared belief within the organization that change is vital to the team returning to championship form. 

Crosby, in a conversation with our Pierre LeBrun before the awards, acknowledged the team needs to find a way to get on the right side of those big games come playoff time that have consistently gone against them. 

"I think as far as finding that identity, and don’t get me wrong I think in the regular season it’s important to have success and we’ve proven that, but we have to find a way in the playoffs to elevate our game," Crosby said. "It doesn’t mean change our identity, but we have to elevate it. We haven’t done quite as good a job at doing that." 

Crosby takes personal responsibility for some of those failures, too, noting that he had zero points in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in 2013 and had just a so-so playoffs, point productionwise, this past spring. 

“It’s not easy to deal with that in the offseason. You don’t like having memories like that,” Crosby told LeBrun. 

Finding the right mix of players who will share Crosby’s buy-in to such a philosophy and having a coaching staff in place that can translate mindset into on-ice performance when it matters most is also part of the equation. 

Is such a staff in place now with Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet? 

Far too early to say. 

But it is also far too soon to be talking about an elite team in decline.

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