Wednesday, September 17, 2014

At start, are Pens already finished?

Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, 9:20 p.m.

Here come the Penguins, back from an offseason that began with ownership's corporate-style hostile takeover and ended with none of that Cup-or-bust pressure that used to set in when players reported for training camp.

There still may be a bust, but the Stanley Cup should not be an expectation.

This isn't that kind of team anymore.

New coach Mike Johnston waited a long time for this first opportunity to run an NHL bench, and he probably thinks this is the best job any coaching lifer could land.

It's not.

It's a job that new general manager Jim Rutherford struggled filling.

It's a job that Detroit coach Mike Babcock may covet.

It's a job that involves connecting with a couple of proud and powerful players who have spent the summer hearing about how much better they can do.

It was easy for Penguins people to subtly poke at the leadership of captain Sidney Crosby and top alternate Evgeni Malkin when those two future Hall of Fame centers weren't around this summer.

It won't be easy for Johnston to deal with the fallout, because it shouldn't be easy for Crosby or Malkin to come to grips with knowing nothing they've provided was good enough for their employers.

Not the sellouts. Not the TV ratings. Not the MVPs. Not the scoring titles. Not that Stanley Cup.

No team in this city is better at controlling its message than the Penguins, so I have to believe the messages management has been sending behind the scenes are the ones they want out there.

Crosby's been crushed by the burden of being Sidney Crosby.


Malkin needs to become a better leader.


Ray Shero was too close to his players.

Not true.

Dan Bylsma ran a country club.

Not really.

It's time to change the culture.

Now, that might be a fair point, but accountability is a tough sell from a franchise with owners who only take questions when they're trying to sound like they've been paying close attention.

Look, I'm back-and-forth on how this all ultimately plays out for the Penguins, but I'm confident that nobody really thinks Philip Samuelsson will play a big role on a potential Cup run.

I'm also pretty skeptical of the overly layered management structure working out the way the Penguins think it could.

Let's say Rutherford makes it work as the new general manager. Like, really work. Like, as in the Cup.

Why would he want to step aside after three years?

Why would Rutherford want to hand a great gig over to Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald or Bill Guerin?

Conversely, let's say three years pass, and the Penguins aren't any better. Like, really better. Like, as in the Cup.

Why would ownership want to stick with what hasn't worked, including holdovers from Shero's management team that was assessed to have overseen a disappointing run?

None of this should be of concern to Johnston. As a first-year, first-time coach out of junior hockey, he must deal with on-ice matters.

He seems to favor moving Pascal Dupuis off the top line.

Let's forget for now that Bylsma had the same plan. Let's also forget that Crosby wants to play with Dupuis and Chris Kunitz as his wingers.

Let's forget it because the Penguins, when they were great, weren't good enough to break up hockey's best line — Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis — and they're far from great now.

This franchise needs some stability, and keeping Crosby with his preferred wingers is at least that.

It's only a hope that Malkin will make it work with new winger Patric Hornqvist. It's only a presumption that old winger James Neal was more trouble than his goal scoring was worth. It's only blind faith that Crosby and Malkin have a supporting cast capable of contributing when it counts.

If Los Angeles and Chicago are the standard (and as two-time Cup winners in the salary-cap era, they are), the Penguins' top scoring lines represent a drop in class.

The defensemen still won't drop anybody. They'll also be drubbed routinely by opposing forwards, leaving Johnston's breakout likely no more successful than the one Bylsma used.

The goalie situation wasn't broken until the Penguins risked breaking Marc-Andre Fleury's confidence by not giving him a new contract.

Paul Martin might not want to be here. Kris Letang does but might be traded.

Johnston has a lot to deal with starting Friday when he leads his first Penguins practice, but at least his bottom-six forwards are better.

Here come the Penguins.

Remember when we knew what to expect?

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

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