Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Johnston will pay if Penguins don't score

Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, 8:36 p.m.

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ray Shero sprang to mind the other day, and not just because I figured he was the happiest man in Newark on Saturday watching his former team melt down.

Penguins players held a closed-door meeting after their 4-0 loss. Mike Johnston ripped his team's effort. Evgeni Malkin did the same and said players were “mad at each other.” Good stuff, even if Malkin softened his words Monday.

But that isn't the main reason I thought of Shero. Rather, in watching these Penguins again look like just another NHL team that can't score, I remembered something Shero said two days after the Boston Bruins swept them three years ago.

Shero explained why he had gone to bat for Dan Bylsma, but it was something else he said that echoes. I never had heard the Penguins' mission statement — the ownership mandate — laid out as openly and clearly.

“The goal,” Shero said, “is to have a team that can entertain the fans and compete for a Cup.”

Notice what he said first: Entertain the fans.

Hockey became a must-see event in this town because of titillating talents such as Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis and Jaromir Jagr. The Penguins exist to score goals. They exist to entertain. It's in their DNA. They string up individual scoring-title banners with their Stanley Cup banners, for goodness sake. They have Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel.

And they have 35 goals in 17 games.

Preventing goals wins in the playoffs. Scoring them sells season tickets.

If you're coaching the Penguins and constantly entangled in low-scoring scrums, you better win a ton of 'em and bring home another Cup. Otherwise, you'll end up like Kevin Constantine and Michel Therrien — cast aside, rightly or wrongly, for not giving the paying customers a good enough show.

In these parts, if you're not scoring, you're boring. The Penguins are boring. They don't score anymore. They are 27th in the NHL in goals per game (2.06) after finishing 19th last season. If that doesn't change real soon, Johnston, fairly or not, likely will go the way of King Con and Mad Mike (who, ironically, has a high-scoring team in Montreal).

I'm not saying Johnston should go. I'm saying he probably will if this movie doesn't stop putting people to sleep.
I asked him if he feels a mandate to not only win but provide an entertaining product.

“We are in the entertainment business,” Johnston said. “But part of the entertainment is winning. That is the bottom line. That should be the bottom line for us as players, coaches, ownership. ... It's all about winning. We're finding ways to win games.”

I guess, if a 10-7 record and fifth place in the Metro means you're winning. Taking 10 of 12, largely on Marc-Andre Fleury's back, was a feat, but the analytics suggest the Penguins' low goals-against average is a castle made of sand.

We could blame the league, the star players, the GM and/or the coach for the Penguins' scoring crisis. Valid arguments could be made for all — especially the stars.

Hey, it's not Johnston who turned back Crosby's point-blank attempts over the weekend.

Stunningly, Crosby is on pace for 43 points, Malkin 58. Yet, Patrick Kane is on pace for 128 and Tyler Seguin for 118. So not everybody has succumbed to a dumbed-down league.

I asked Malkin about the system. He said it's designed more to create goals than prevent them. It didn't quite sound that way, though, in his description.

“It's more focused to D zone, more focused to play a tight game,” he said. “I mean it's not 5-5 (for a final score). It's 1-1, 2-2. It's a system like playoffs.”

That doesn't sound like a lot of fun for an offensive player.

“We still have our power play,” Malkin offered.

Yes, unfortunately, they still have their power play.

This feels like a big four-game homestand for Johnston, beginning Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild (run by Shero's former right-hand man, Chuck Fletcher). If I were Johnston, I'd be sweating hockey pucks about now. His team is no fun to watch. It doesn't score anymore.

“I never worry or even think about job security,” Johnston said. “I think about our game, how are we playing.”
He might want to consider what Shero said in that long-ago news conference, because Shero was only reflecting what ownership wants.

“I'm trying to make sure we're a team our city is proud of, an entertaining hockey team that can compete for the Cup every year,” Shero said. “That's our goal moving forward.”

Still is.

Did you notice what he said first?

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/steelers/9450980-74/johnston-penguins-shero#ixzz3rkbRQqpw 
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