Analysis: Clock is ticking on Penguins' shortcomings

Part two of two: A season gone wrong



The Penguins have done some good things in the week since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as coach. It wasn't particularly evident at times in their 5-2 loss in Washington yesterday -- some awful special-teams work overshadowed just about everything else -- but they've been skating harder and playing with more enthusiasm and confidence.

What they haven't done is to make any major progress toward getting back into playoff position in the Eastern Conference. They remain marooned in 10th place, four points out of eighth. They have 22 games remaining to close that gap, and will have to correct a lot of the shortcomings that dogged them through the first 60 if they hope to do it.

Yesterday, four factors that contributed to the Penguins' disappointing showing through the first quarters of the season -- personnel changes, chemistry, injuries and late-game lapses -- were discussed. Today, a look at five others:

Underachievers

Sounds strange to say about a team with the top two scorers in the NHL, but the Penguins have few players who have lived up to, let alone exceeded, their potential this season.

Some, such as Sidney Crosby, have been productive, but could do more. Others, such as winger Miroslav Satan and defenseman Ryan Whitney, have performed far below expectations.

There is a popular perception that the Penguins are an extremely skilled team. That really isn't the case. They have some of the top talent in the world, but it's concentrated in a handful of players.

That's why, much as the Penguins must get the best blue-collar workers such as Max Talbot, Mark Eaton and Pascal Dupuis have to give, they need to have prominent figures such as Whitney and center Jordan Staal contribute as much as they are capable.

Whitney's game has been out of synch almost since he returned from foot surgery in December and by now, his confidence level probably is lower than his plus-minus rating of minus-15.

Staal scored 29 goals his rookie season and was a superb penalty-killer, with the size, strength and hockey sense to develop into a classic shut-down center.

In the nearly two seasons since, he has scored 27 goals and, after being so visible, so often his first year in the league, has been all too easy to overlook much of the time.

He is still, at age 20, a work-in-progress and years from peaking, but he's too valuable to plateau without it affecting the Penguins' success.

Inconsistent goaltending

Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending was the biggest reason the Penguins were able to go 13-5-3 in their first 21 games, because their overall play was average during that period. And Fleury's work, along with that of then-backup Dany Sabourin, was a major factor in their 11-18-2 record in the 31 that followed.

Goaltending is the most important position in hockey, and there is no better example of that being true than the Penguins.

When Fleury is on top of his game, he is capable of winning games almost single-handedly. But when he routinely mishandles the puck, gives up dangerous rebounds or allows long-range goals he should be stopping, the Penguins' chances of winning drop precipitously.

He also has a tendency to allow untimely goals that could be prevented, such as the one Montreal's Tomas Plekanec scored on an unscreened slapshot from the top of the left circle in the third period of the Penguins' 5-4 victoryThursday. That's a big mistake for a team that has so little margin for error.

A hockey truism holds that what matters most are not the shots a goalie stops, but the ones he lets in. Fleury embodies that nugget of wisdom.

He made major strides toward realizing his enormous potential in the stretch drive and playoffs last season and, at 24, can be expected to improve for at least several more seasons.

But as long as the Penguins see Fleury's best only part of the time, it will be reflected in their record.

Shoot the puck

The Penguins made their NHL debut Oct. 11, 1967. Don't be surprised if a historian someday finds evidence that a Civic Arena patron loudly implored a member of the home team to "shoot the puck" for the first time that evening, perhaps as early as the second shift of the game.

That advice isn't usually heeded by players -- and much of the time, it shouldn't be -- but the Penguins routinely hold onto the puck, or pass it, when simply throwing it on goal would be the best play.

They are averaging a league-low 27.6 shots per game, despite having some of the game's finest offensive players.

Washington left winger Alex Ovechkin, the NHL leader, had accounted for 383 shots on goal, nearly matching the output of the Penguins' two most prolific shooters, Evgeni Malkin (218) and Crosby (180).

The Penguins' penchant for not shooting is especially apparent, and costly, on the power play. Yesterday, for example, they had just 10 shots on goal in eight chances with the man-advantage against the Capitals. It's no surprise their power play ranks in the bottom fifth of the league, despite having a No. 1 unit manned by some exceptionally talented players.

Passive defense

A few years back, clearing the front of the net was basic stuff for NHL defensemen. They simply drove the shaft of their stick into the torso of an opponent until the guy either moved or began to receive endorsement checks for allowing the name of an equipment company to be tattooed on him.

These days, not so much. Raw violence isn't the league office's deterrent of choice anymore.

But even with the greatly reduced tolerance for cross-checking, slashing, holding-the-stick and other traditional front-of-the-net tactics, the Penguins' defense has been far too passive. It's not just that they haven't punished opponents who loiter in and around their crease; they don't even impede them much of the time.

The Penguins' 6-2 loss in Toronto Feb. 14 -- a defeat so troubling on so many levels that coach Michel Therrien lost his job the next day -- provided some particularly graphic examples, as the Maple Leafs routinely set up around Fleury as if they had no concern about being disturbed by his teammates. Which they usually weren't.

Brooks Orpik and Hal Gill are the only defensemen with a history of hitting, but a well-timed bump can be as effective, if not spectacular, as a crushing check. The Penguins need to hand out more of them.

Winging it

Just about every forward to wear a Penguins sweater this season -- OK, with the possible exception of Janne Pesonen -- has made it onto Crosby's line at some point.

So far, no one has earned a permanent assignment there.

Crosby and all-world right winger Marian Hossa proved last spring what can happen when Crosby is matched with a winger who has exceptional skill and instincts, and Hossa surely would be a fixture on Crosby's right side if he had re-signed with the Penguins.

Hossa is gone, though, and his departure left a gaping void that hasn't been filled. And probably won't be until the Penguins are willing to part with some valuable assets to acquire the goal-scorer needed to get the most from Crosby's playmaking abilities.

Bring in the right guy, though, and the investment likely will be repaid many times over.


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published February 23, 2009 5:00 AM


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