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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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

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