It would be an easy, obvious explanation for why the Penguins have sputtered for so much of the past month or so, why there have been questions about their effort and emotion so often lately.
Michel Therrien would not, after all, be the first coach whose shelf life expired after a few years, whose message no longer was being absorbed by his players.
But however easy and obvious it might be, the idea isn't remotely accurate, according to players and team officials surveyed yesterday.
Regardless of their job title and whether they were speaking on the record or off, there was one common thread in the responses: Whatever problems the Penguins have experienced in the weeks leading up to their game tonight against Boston at Mellon Arena should not be attributed to Therrien losing the attention of his players.
"I don't think that's the case at all," captain Sidney Crosby said.
It wouldn't be unusual for any player, let alone a captain, to refrain from publicly criticizing his coach. At the very least, it's usually not a good career move.
• Game: Bruins vs. Penguins.
• When: 7:08 p.m.
• TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
But in this case, even players speaking strictly for background information, with no possibility of their identities being revealed, absolved Therrien of responsibility for the Penguins' struggles.
Injuries, a grueling schedule and subpar individual performances came up in the conversation a lot, but no one uttered a single harsh syllable about coaching.
General manager Ray Shero, who in July signed Therrien to a contract extension that runs through the 2010-11 season, made it clear he has no complaints about what he has been getting from Therrien and his assistants, Andre Savard and Mike Yeo.
"I have a lot of faith in this coaching staff, as I have since we grew together the first couple of years," Shero said.
Therrien has coached 251 games since replacing Eddie Olczyk Dec. 15, 2005. That's the longest run by any Penguins coach since Eddie Johnston was behind the bench for 276 from 1993-97, and the third longest in franchise history. (Red Kelly coached the team for its third through sixth seasons, a total of 310 games.)
Lindy Ruff, hired by Buffalo July 21, 1997, is the longest-serving coach now working in the NHL. But coaches like Ruff and Barry Trotz, the only coach Nashville has had since entering the league in 1998, tend to be the exception.
Many NHL coaches last no more than a few seasons, whether it's because they simply prove to be overmatched or because, as many believe, players begin to tune them out.
Therrien, though, said the notion that players had stopped paying attention to him "never crossed my mind," while Shero flatly rejected the very concept.
"The whole idea of tuning out the coach, I think that is like the phrase, 'lack of effort,' " Shero said. "I think it's an easy excuse, an easy out."
Of course, the phrase Shero cited -- along with others pointing to a shortage of things like energy and commitment and focus -- has come up with troubling regularity after losses in recent weeks.
"I don't think we've been as consistent as we would like to be," Crosby said. "December, overall, is a month that hasn't been good for us."
The problem, he suggested, has been two-fold, neither of which is related to coaching: A meat-grinder schedule and a run of significant injuries.
"If you or I were to look at a team that sometimes doesn't have emotion, it's easy to assume that guys aren't trying or something like that," Crosby said. "That isn't the case with us.
"We were depleted. It isn't easy to show emotion when you're playing three [games] in four nights for three straight weeks. Sometimes, I think we've played three in 3 1/2 days.
"The schedule is a terrible excuse, because everyone has the same schedule, pretty much. You all get hit with tough parts throughout the season. Everyone goes through that.
"But if you throw in six or seven injuries and have guys coming in and out of the lineup, you're going to run into tough situations."
The Penguins have done that quite a bit during their first 36 games. What matters now is how they come through the 46 that remain.
"We're a competitive team," Shero said. "We're a team that went to the [Stanley Cup] final last year. We're trying to get over the hump."
Dave Molinari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 30, 2008 5:00 AM