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Kids Not Enough; Penguins Need New ‘Dad’



Pittsburgh Penguins free agent signings Matt Cullen
By Michael Miller - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

There is a particular type of player the Penguins could use leading up to the trade deadline. Like Bryan Trottier, Bill Guerin and Matt Cullen before, the Penguins need a “Dad.”

In the early 1990s, it wasn’t unusual to see Trottier, a wonderful skater, working with a Penguins teammate or two on edgework or other nuances before practice. Imagine how it must have felt to get such attention from a thoughtful, respected veteran who had won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders.

Fast forward a quarter century or so. Guerin was a funny, feisty power forward who not only held a spot on the Penguins top line but also kept his teammates in line.

Then there was Cullen. The past two seasons, he was affectionately called “Dad” by his Penguins teammates and, like Guerin, more than willing to offer an honest appraisal of the club.

The three veterans also helped the Penguins win one or two Cups.

The Right Guy Will be the Right Fit

It doesn’t matter if such an addition can play third-line center or is a defenseman. He just needs to be a wise, older veteran who can cut it somewhere in the lineup and command attention in the locker room and on the bench.

It would be the yin to the yang that has been an infusion of youth that has buoyed the Penguins lately.

Rookie wingers Daniel Sprong, who was prominent in a Tuesday story, and Dominik Simon along with goaltender Tristan Jarry have rightly drawn attention and praise from inside and outside the locker room.

“I think it’s that combination of youthful enthusiasm with a strong veteran leadership that makes our team what it’s been for the past couple of seasons,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’re looking for that combination right now so that we can get more consistent results.”

The premise that the Penguins need to tweak that balance by adding an older veteran – should we use “grizzled” here? – in no way is a knock on the staff or the leadership already on the roster, or veterans on past rosters such as Brooks Orpik and Sergei Gonchar (although Gonchar, with his stellar play and calm demeanor, came awfully close to the model).

Sidney Crosby, 30, is a wonderful captain who sets a strong example, is willing to speak up at times, is highly inclusive and deeply respected. Bookend superstar center Evgeni Malkin, 31, has called out the team publicly at times and also has his team’s respect.

Even Crosby, when asked if he could step in as Dad 2.0 with some of his youngest teammates, doesn’t see it.

“I wouldn’t go that far yet,” he said, sporting an oh-brother grin.

On a more serious note, he added, “I think you try to help with your experience and trying to make guys comfortable and make that transition as easy as possible.”

This is about finding someone a little older who can come in from the outside and have a stirring, positive effect on the players.

Trottier was in his mid-30s. Guerin was pushing 40. Cullen turned 40 during his Penguins tenure.

The team’s oldest player today is defenseman Matt Hunwick, 32, who doesn’t seem to have the “it” factor of the examples listed above. No knock on Hunwick; it’s the rare veteran who has been around long enough, seen the dynamic in more than one locker room and has the right personality to fill this particular role.

He Doesn’t Have to be Jagr or Cullen

You won’t see any prospective names here because there’s no inside scoop. To be sure, this is certainly not about Jaromir Jagr making some sort of triumphant return.

It’s not even clear whether general manager Jim Rutherford, should he go searching for such an impact veteran, would find or be able to procure one the way he did with Cullen or the way former GM Ray Shero did when he picked up Guerin, who admittedly had grown stale with the Islanders but found a renewed purpose with the Penguins.

Ryan Reaves, 29, might have the potential to grow into that role if he sticks in the league long enough, but the outgoing winger isn’t there now. He understands what such a veteran can add.

“They bring experience. They’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. They’ve seen the middle of it. They’ve kind of been through it all,” Reaves said.

“To bring that experience and be able to help a team that’s struggling or help a team through those experiences, maybe talk them through it a little bit, I think goes a long way.”

Crosby has a theory that could skew the older-guy dynamic.

“It’s becoming a younger league,” he said. “That’s not that common to see a 40-year-old playing. It’s pretty rare. So the guys that are able to do it are pretty unique in the way that they are able to last that long at this level and this speed.

“But I’d guess that role or that side of things may change. As the years go on you’re not going to see maybe someone as old as that playing. It’s going to be a little younger than that. That’s just kind of the way the game’s going.”

That could be a further sign that Crosby, as he hinted before, doubts he will play past or much past his contract, which takes him to age 37.

It also means that those highly valuable character veterans will become more scarce, or at least that they will have to step up at a slightly younger age.

But, boy, the Penguins could use one of those golden oldies for this stretch run.


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Shelly is the newest columnist and reporter for Pittsburgh Hockey Now. She was a Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and remains a contributor to The Hockey News. Catch her on Twitter @_shellyanderson

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