Pressure builds on GM, coach

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A hockey season that once was ripe with promise is turning ugly. The Penguins, picked by some prestigious national publications to win the Stanley Cup, are struggling mightily. They've lost four in a row, six out of seven and eight out of 10. Not surprisingly, they are in last place in the Atlantic Division.

Sidney Crosby, 20, and Evgeni Malkin, 21, continue to play superbly and remain formidable building blocks for the future. But the praise doesn't go much further.

Marc-Andre Fleury, 22, the supposed franchise goaltender, is 36th, among 37, in goals against average in the NHL. Jordan Staal, 19, has one goal, after scoring 29 last season in a superb rookie year.

Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, veterans who were re-signed in the offseason, are playing like they should not have been. The two semi-major free agents signed to bolster a team that had the fourth-best record in the conference last season, winger Petr Sykora and defenseman Darryl Sydor, have brought mixed results. Sykora has played well enough. He's tied for second on the team in goals with Malkin. Sydor has been somewhat of a disappointment. His minus -7 rating is tied for the team's worst.

The demanding tactics of coach Michel Therrien are not working. The team regularly falls behind and plays lethargically. Nor are the mind games Therrien is playing with Fleury having a positive effect. Therrien needs to get Fleury back in the lineup on a regular basis. Dany Sabourin is not the answer. Fleury might be.

Not unpredictably, even the team's ultra-supportive fans are angry and disappointed, although they still continue to sell out Mellon Arena. The fans feel let down by their heroes. The media turns up the criticism almost daily. This is not what anyone expected.

No one has panicked yet, but soon many will. The Penguins need to put an end to this losing, and they need to do it soon. At this point, last place isn't that far removed from first, and a spot in the top eight -- a playoff berth -- is within easy reach.

Opportunity is at hand with three consecutive home games against division rivals in the next six days, beginning tomorrow with the New York Islanders. The New York Rangers are at Mellon Arena Saturday and the New Jersey Devils next Wednesday. The downside of that schedule is this: The Penguins have lost four in a row to divisional opponents and two of them were at home.

But, if the losing continues, and it well may, here's something that must be remembered: As indicated above, this is a very young team. Anyone who expected this team to pick up where it left off last season was ridiculously optimistic. The 2006-07 Penguins not only got the most out of their young talent -- Staal scored more goals in the NHL than he did the year before in junior hockey -- but the team also was remarkably injury and adversity free. What's taking place this season is part of the growing process and, hopefully, part of the championship development process.

Players recently removed from their teen years do not lead NHL teams to championships -- not even the most wildly talented. Mario Lemieux was in his fifth season -- Crosby is in his third, Malkin his second -- when the Penguins first made the playoffs. He was in his seventh season when they won their first Cup.

The real pressure to bring this team back does not rest with the corps of young players. Barring a major brain cramp by general manager Ray Shero, they will get a long opportunity -- seasons, not games -- to prove themselves. The people upon whom there is pressure are Therrien and Shero.

Therrien failed once in Montreal. His demanding style, which he has modified some, doesn't always play well with the players. He has to find a way to get this team moving. His job might not depend on it, but, then again, it might. After leading the Penguins to one of the best single-season improvements in NHL history, he was underwhelmed with a one-year contract extension that will take him through the end of next season.

Firing Therrien might sound outlandish but let's not forget this is a franchise that chews up coaches, the franchise that fired Ivan Hlinka four games into the season after his team unexpectedly had advanced to the conference final the previous season.

This also is a test of the mettle of Shero, a first-time general manager. His job is absolutely not in jeopardy. But his reputation is. Does he stand by and let this thing fall apart in the belief that this superb foundation should not be touched? Or does he tinker and tweak?

Winning will solve everything; panic will solve nothing. The Penguins must proceed on a steady course and trust in their players, their coach and their general manager. They really don't have any other choice.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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