Injuries to Crosby, Malkin, Staal dominated Penguins' season

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It was a triumph of commitment, a testament to power of perspiration.

And, in the end, it was utterly irrelevant.

Mind you, all that the Penguins accomplished during the regular season -- the second-highest point total in franchise history, a serious run at the Eastern Conference championship despite a cruel run of injuries to core players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- was nothing shy of remarkable. But ultimately, what did it get them?

Some well-deserved respect. A lot of praise from outside the organization. And, of course, the right to play Game 7, if there was one, in the opening round of the playoffs at Consol Energy Center.

Only one of those truly counted.

And, as it turned out, even that couldn't have mattered less, because the only benefit the Penguins got from playing Game 7 against Tampa Bay here on Wednesday was having a short drive, not a long flight, home after the Lightning ended their season.

The Penguins could have -- should have -- won that series. Take a 3-1 lead against any opponent, up to and including the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, and you should be able to close it out, especially with two of the final three games on home ice.

That the Penguins didn't is an indictment of all concerned.

Why Coach of the Year finalist Dan Bylsma didn't dress Eric Tangradi to provide an effective net-front presence for his comically inept power play or rugged defenseman Deryk Engelland to reduce the number of second-chance scoring opportunities the Lightning got is a mystery. Would sitting, say, Alex Kovalev and/or Matt Niskanen really have put his team at a competitive disadvantage?

Those personnel decisions were almost as baffling as the failure of Byslma's players to approach Game 5, when Tampa Bay was coming off two home losses and had been shoved to the cusp of elimination, with anything resembling a killer instinct or sense of urgency. That became just the second of the Penguins' four losses, but in some ways, it might be when they lost the series.

The Penguins scored a total of four goals in Games 5, 6 and 7, and just 14 in the series. Generating shots and scoring opportunities wasn't usually a problem, but capitalizing on them was.

The two late-season additions counted on to provide goals, Kovalev and James Neal, got one each in the series. Hardly what was expected. Or needed.

For Neal, the Tampa Bay series capped a disappointing start to his time with the Penguins. For Kovalev, it likely marked the end of his second stint here, and perhaps his career in the NHL.

He is one of nine Penguins forwards (not counting Nick Johnson) scheduled to qualify for unrestricted free agency if not re-signed by July 1 and, as an unproductive serial free-lancer on a team that values structure, wouldn't seem to have a future here.

The others on whom general manager Ray Shero and his staff must decide are Max Talbot, Mike Rupp, Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis, Eric Godard, Chris Conner, Mike Comrie and Arron Asham.

While management can decide now who it doesn't want to bring back, it's not clear how much can be done at the moment with the UFAs-to-be they'd like to retain.

The Penguins' payroll is high enough that they'll have to find out what the salary-cap ceiling for 2011-12 will be before making any major financial commitments, and there's no guarantee the guys they'll want to keep will settle for the money and/or term the Penguins will be willing to offer.

With Dustin Jeffrey ready for full-time work in the NHL -- and Tangradi and Johnson not far behind -- Shero should have leverage in negotiations and latitude in deciding who should be allowed to walk.

Although Shero likes to have an accomplished enforcer on his roster, Godard is expendable (especially if Rupp comes back) and Asham, a strong playoff showing aside, contributed almost nothing during the regular season. A hip problem sabotaged Comrie's season; if Shero wants to gamble on him again, it should be done only after the roster essentially is set.

Adams, Talbot and Dupuis were key members of the Penguins' top-ranked penalty-killing unit. Keeping all three seems like a long shot, with Talbot -- who locked up his place in franchise lore by scoring both goals in Game 7 of the 2009 Cup final -- the early favorite to be working elsewhere this fall.

Rupp definitely is worth keeping if the price is right, and Conner has proven he can fill a role at this level, although he hardly is irreplaceable.

All seven defensemen and both goalies on the NHL roster are signed at least through next season, so Shero won't have to deal with any of them. That doesn't mean he shouldn't consider trading one or more, however.

Even if Neal becomes the goal-scorer the Penguins believe he can be once he's working alongside Crosby, it wouldn't hurt to add another winger who could get 25 or so, and the Penguins have the bait, in the form of capable defensemen, who might land one.

In addition to the group here now, they have quality prospects Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait in the pipeline. Despres will need some professional seasoning, and Bortuzzo and Strait wouldn't be harmed by a little more time in the minors, but their presence should give Shero the confidence to trade for a top-six winger if one comes available.

Regardless of what deals he might swing over the next few months, however, the Penguins' biggest additions next season will be Crosby and Malkin. (Assuming, of course, that they're fully recovered from their concussion and knee surgery, respectively, by fall.) Stir those two back into the mix, and a group that achieved so much will be capable of a lot more.

And not just during the regular season.

Dave Molinari: . First Published May 1, 2011 4:00 AM


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