Things had become tense with undercurrents of frustration and negativity as the Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-18 season headed towards its conclusion. Two consecutive seasons of playing hockey into mid-June then hitting the ice by August to prepare for the next season took its toll. The price extracted wasn’t as physical as it was mental. Trade talk immediately sprang from the season finale. With the benefit of hindsight, the Penguins were suffocating.
Even the most happily married couple need a little space.
Frustrations leaked where previously they did not exist. In quiet corners, some expressed negative sentiments; frustration and negativity which no longer seem to exist after time away from the situation.
For example, trade mentions of Kris Letang and Phil Kessel.
Moments after Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in overtime of Game 6, Round 2 to end the Penguins two-year title reign, this writer tweeted a prediction about Kris Letang’s future. In the since-deleted tweet, it was predicted that moment would be Penguins defenseman’s Kris Letang’s final moment in a Penguins sweater.
Letang and the Penguins suffered yet another defensive breakdown on Kuznetsov’s goal. It was the last of too many breakdowns and the final moment Letang’s season full of ups and downs. During the season, Letang expressed dissatisfaction, and others softly repeated the frustration which echoed off the walls of PPG Paints Arena.
Obviously, the prediction was wrong. Way wrong.
Please allow me a mea culpa. In the ensuing social media chaos which followed the Penguins loss, that tweet and prediction became a lightning rod. Angry fans vented anger in response, angry fans vented anger at those venting anger, some welcomed the idea, and others hated it. Tribes formed. The tweet was deleted because of the ugliness it cultivated.
Phil Kessel, Too
A similar and simultaneous situation occurred but on a much larger scale with Phil Kessel. No sports story has ever resembled the Kessel situation and the resulting fan reaction. Every media outlet in Pittsburgh and national outlets had varying degrees of a story about the Penguins’ unhappiness. The story ultimately reached a climax as multiple sources reported a trade was possible.
Just as the story reached a fevered pitch, it dissipated.
Last season, things never consistently went well for the Penguins. There was a stretch in January into February in which they were unstoppable. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin double shifted, which reduced the offensive burden on Riley Sheahan and things were rolling. After the trade deadline, the Penguins had much more talent but things never gelled.
The pressure of a third straight Stanley Cup mixed with the need to attempt to reshape lines and the reshaped locker room. There was tension as some players, notably Kessel, did not produce or perform to the same standard after the trade deadline. Things simmered as the Penguins season sputtered to a halt.
However, by the 2018 NHL Draft which occurred nearly six weeks after the end of the Penguins season, the feelings turned. Head coach Mike Sullivan responded to a question from PHN about the media’s role in the turmoil.
“Sometimes when we say things, (media) draw conclusions or extrapolate things that we have no intention of relaying to you guys. I think that’s just the nature of the business.”
And so it ended. The Penguins name was tossed about in some trade speculation around Montreal LW Max Pacioretty, but that was mostly from national outlets. The tune inside Pittsburgh changed. The whispers and echoes which bounced off the walls in Pittsburgh changed from frustrated to optimistic. The Penguins got help for their defense and Kris Letang with Jack Johnson and bolstered their bottom six and leadership with Matt Cullen and Derek Grant.
With time and space, the stories changed as the Penguins outlook and perspectives changed. Maybe we all just needed some time and space.