It still amazes me how quickly this season went for the Pittsburgh Penguins; seems only yesterday they were opening up against the Vancouver Canucks to start their western road trip. From there, the team got out to an 8-3-2 start, good enough for first in the Eastern Conference.
Then injuries showed their ugly head, again, as it seemed impossible for the Penguins to have more than three healthy defensemen at a time. Sidney Crosby returned from an 11 month absence and tallied four points against the New York Islanders. But his concussion -or broken neck- symptoms returned and he was shelved for another three months.
Crosby's second departure created a six game losing streak, in which the team was soon bombarded with questions on why they couldn't win. But the play of Evgeni Malkin appeared to lead the team out of their hole and the Penguins recovered in a big way to win 11 straight before losing to Philadelphia in overtime.
The loss proved to be a bigger deal than most thought.
The Penguins went 9-8-1 in their final 17 games and lost in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers in stunning fashion. While this most recent playoff defeat may go down as the biggest disappointment in franchise history, the organization certainly has a lot more on their plate than they thought.
Here is what we learned about the Pittsburgh Penguins in lieu of the 2011-2012 season:
This is not a Stanley Cup team
Say what you want about the matchup -the Flyers have been dominant over the Penguins in the last two years with a record of 12-5-1- however, the way in which this team lost has been a characteristic all season, overshadowed by their high offensive skill. The Boston Bruins went 2-2 against the Penguins with both their losses involving miraculous breakaway saves by Marc-Andre Fleury (twice on David Krejci) and Brent Johnson (twice on Tyler Seguin). The same could be said in Pittsburgh's 8-1 win over Tampa Bay on February 25th. Marc-Andre Fleury stoned Martin St. Louis multiple times in the first period, allowing the Penguins to get up 3-0 at the end of the first. The matchup against the Flyers was bad but had they not played Philadelphia, another team would have exploited their weaknesses in the defensive zone.
Bylsma's system showed flaws
"Get to our game." The biggest quote of any hockey player on the Penguins (and really everywhere). If the Penguins get to their game, it means they are constantly putting pressure in the offensive zone. With a healthy Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jordan Staal, and Kris Letang, this team is certainly capable of eating up time with the puck. Blysma's aggressive system led to the highest goal total in the regular season by any team. What his system failed to do, however, was account for the other team when they had the puck. Team defense was incredibly poor. Forwards failed to back check which led to odd-man rushes off of turnovers in the offensive end. Making matters worse, the defensemen were bad at getting the puck out of their own zone leading to goals and they were equally as bad at protecting the stretch pass in the neutral zone. Since the Penguins won't be playing hockey for another five months, Dan Bylsma should have plenty of time to clean up the X's and O's. His job relies on his ability to make adjustments to his system. This franchise, led by Mario Lemieux, will not stand for another embarrassing first round exit in 2013.
Not the most talented team in the division
The Penguins boast a young, talented core. On their roster, they have three centers unmatched in talent by any team in the league; two of which combine for three Art Ross Trophies, a gold medal, a Conn Smythe, and a Stanley Cup. With talented young defensemen such as Kris Letang, a 40 goal scorer in James Neal, and a Stanley Cup goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, it is easy to see why this team was picked to win the Cup this season. But the Flyers proved that they are the younger, more talented team. Six rookies including 19 year old Sean Couturier, started for Philadelphia. Couturier was monumental in shutting down Evgeni Malkin in the series. Brayden Schenn proved to be an agitator with grit and skill, scoring the game-tying goal in game one. No single player is more talented than Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but as a team, the Flyers have enough to compete for years to come. Add into the mix that the Penguins may lose Jordan Staal within the next year due to free agency or trade, and the Penguins certainly have some catching up to do.
Penguins need a quarterback on the power play
Let's face it, this team needs someone on the blue line to direct the power play. That player could be Kris Letang, but in the two seasons since Sergei Gonchar's departure, Letang has shown an inability to run the power play by himself. He is a talented defenseman, loaded with offensive talent, but his erratic play with the puck and inability to bring the puck up ice has been a thorn in the side of the Penguins on the man advantage. The fact that Steve Sullivan had to play the point in the playoffs is a true testament to how much Letang has to improve.
Simon Despres is ready
Like everyone else in this city, I believe it is time to move on from Paul Martin. If the Penguins can find a team desperately trying to spend to the cap floor, maybe they can orchestrate a trade for a mid-low round pick. Otherwise, Martin should be sent to the minor ala Wade Redden. Simon Despres filled in for Martin after game 3 and looked stable despite playing in his first NHL playoff game. Despres is a big defenseman, listed at 6'4 220. He doesn't hit for his size but he is exceptionally skilled at getting the puck out of his own end, something every player struggled with in black and gold. With defenseman, Joe Morrow, right behind Despres, the Penguins would be wise to take a page out of Philadelphia's book and give these youngsters a chance. If they prove to be the better defensemen on the ice, then they need to play, regardless of age.
The Penguins enter the most interesting offseason in their post-lockout history. With questions surrounding the defense, coaching, power play, and Jordan Staal, Pens' GM Ray Shero has a lot on his plate. Shero already expressed full faith in the coaching staff on Tuesday's press conference, so now the attention turns to the players. Who stays and who goes? Do the Penguins mistakenly stand pat on what is surely a team with a few holes? We'll have to wait and see.