The Pittsburgh Penguins training camp begins Friday as does a new chance to reopen their Stanley Cup window which appeared to slam shut after being swept in Round One by the New York Islanders last season. It was a whimpering defeat as the Penguins defeated themselves as much as any opponent beat them. The successful Penguins core internally squawked and squabbled.
In a counter-intuitive situation, the Penguins excelled in late in the regular season after injuries decimated their team. Stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang missed weeks late in the season but everyone returned in time for the playoffs. And lost quickly.
Excelling without your best players is not how it is supposed to work.
The Penguins most successful stretch was in March when they had the least amount of talent. Given that fact, and their quick playoff dismissal by the team-first New York Islanders, it should not be too much of a surprise the Penguins have reshaped their roster with less talented players. They added hard workers who accept their role.
“Know your role and shut your mouth,” as Duane “The Rock” Johnson used to bellow into a WWE microphone.
And so as the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp begins later this week, leadership will be most crucial. A fractured team does not automatically repair. The reverberations of discord are not silenced without effort and leadership, which shows a better path forward.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby will face a challenge to bring his team and all of its new faces together. Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun, and Brandon Tanev replace Phil Kessel who was a cause of some of the turmoil. The newbies undoubtedly received their welcome text, and Crosby is by all accounts a great captain.
But his leadership alone will not be enough. Nor will the pushing, poking, prodding, barking, encouraging, soft love and tough love of head coach Mike Sullivan.
The Penguins will also need to replace their “Dad,” Matt Cullen, who retired and took a liaison position with the organization. Sullivan often referred to Cullen as, “an extension of the coaching staff on the ice.” Cullen will be around the team to help players communicate with management, but that is a much different role than being in the room, on the ice, and in the battle beside the boys. The Penguins need leaders to step forward.
The locker room will need time to gel. The team on the ice will take as long, or longer to gel as the coaches will have near-endless options to configure their lineup. Many of the Penguins forwards can play both wings and are worthy of spot duty in the top-six but are comfortable in the dirty roles of the down lines. See also, Bryan Rust, Dominik Simon, Dominik Kahun, Brandon Tanev, Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Jared McCann and even Patric Hornqvist.
Tanev probably isn’t suited for any top-six ice time, and Hornqvist can’t flip sides comfortably, but you get the idea.
Just remember the Penguins near-constant shuffling and sometimes “hope and a prayer” pairings on the blue line last season. The forward lines will be even worse this season unless the Penguins coaches hit the lottery early in the season with clicking combinations, and every player performs consistently well. Since the Penguins don’t have the type of player personnel who will always produce, the lines could be like a Rubix Cube.
Through the chaos of new faces, new lines, and experimenting, the Penguins will need to win hockey games. Unlike the NFL in which teams have a laborious six-week training camp and preseason, hockey spares but two weeks. Organizations often use the real games in October and some of November to find their footing. Not long ago, those early games were more fun because teams had not yet clamped down defensively. Sometimes teams tried to win with more offense.
However, points are too crucial, now. Those two points squandered in October could be a deciding factor in April. Even mediocre teams are within a handful of points of the final playoff spot at the end of the season. For example, the Carolina Hurricanes who advanced to the Eastern Conference Final and the Columbus Blue Jackets who swept the President’s Trophy victor Tampa Bay Lightning, each made the playoffs by just two points. The so-so Montreal Canadiens missed the playoffs by only two points.
The multiple Stanley Cups are now in the rearview mirror and fading from view. The two most recent playoff appearances haven’t lasted beyond Round Two, and Round One, respectively.
As the Penguins training camp flings open the doors to welcome a new team, and to clear the stench from the last one, there are a couple of influential leaders who will push them forward, but they will need more. We don’t yet know who else will step forward, but we do know they will be vital.