Dave Molinari on the Penguins: Keeping focused on the big picture
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Give Michel Therrien credit for this much: He got on-message in the minutes following the Penguins' 2-1 loss to New Jersey at Mellon Arena last Wednesday, and nothing was going to bump him off it.
Therrien fielded two questions during his post-game press conference -- one about the urgency of the team turning its season around before it drifts too far from the Eastern Conference playoff field, the other about the Penguins settling into last place in the Atlantic Division -- and gave identical responses to both: "It's still early in the season."
While no one asked Therrien, the Penguins' coach, the obvious follow-up -- "So, Coach, do you think it's still early in the season?" -- no one disputed that his team had 61 games remaining at that point.
In that sense, Therrien was correct. It is early.
Not too early, though, for the Penguins to be stranded on the dark side of .500.
For them to be marooned in 13th place in the East, as they were before facing Atlanta last night.
For them, before taking on the Thrashers, to be needing to play .600 hockey the rest of the way simply to earn the 92 points it took to claim the East's last playoff berth in 2006-07.
All of which means it isn't too early for general manager Ray Shero to seriously investigate -- and contemplate -- moves that can be made to re-establish the Penguins as a significant factor, if not an outright force, in the conference.
Negotiating trades is complicated and time-consuming in the salary-cap era because what a player can contribute on the ice isn't the only factor that must get deep consideration, but it's not as if there are only one or two facets of the Penguins' game that merit attention. At this point, there aren't many more than one or two that don't.
Now, it could be that the Penguins' 6-5 shootout victory in Ottawa Thursday will turn out to be a pivotal moment in their season, because they overcame a pair of two-goal deficits on the road against what might be the best team in the league, even though the Senators didn't look the part for much of that evening.
It's conceivable that the confidence the Penguins -- especially guys who had forgotten what it's like to see their name in a scoring summary -- took out of that game will help to fuel a surge through the standings, and reduce their performance during the first quarter of the season to an unpleasant memory.
Then again, what happened at Scotiabank Place might prove to be an aberration, because there have been a few other times this season -- like when they followed a 2-1 victory in Washington with a 1-0 shutout of the New York Rangers -- when the Penguins seemed to be getting in sync, and it ultimately ended up as an illusion.
That underscores the perils of evaluating situations based on a snapshot instead of the bigger picture.
And, through the first seven-plus weeks of the Penguins' season, that picture has been something less than a masterpiece.
Now, with five full days between last night's game and the Penguins' next one, against Dallas Friday at Mellon Arena, they have an opportunity not only to rest and regroup, but to be reconfigured, at least a little.
That doesn't mean a drastic move is mandatory -- this isn't the time to, say, auction off Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to the highest bidder and begin to rebuild around Chris Minard and Connor James -- and Shero's patience-based approach to developing the Penguins into a contender absolutely is the proper strategy for the long-term good of the franchise.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere in the dressing room was beginning to sour in recent days -- a fairly predictable occurrence when a team struggles the way the Penguins have been -- and the only antidote for that is winning. Which the current personnel mix has shown no ability to do with any regularity this season.
Shero has said repeatedly and forcefully for the past year that he won't fire Therrien -- the obvious asterisk there, of course, is that replacing the coach is a nuclear option no GM ever can take completely off the table -- and there's no indication he's wavering in his support of the coaching staff.
The Penguins came out of training camp with a few conspicuous needs, like a defenseman who plays physically and a goal-scorer winger or two, and those remain. The real concern, though, is that there appear to be more soft spots in the lineup.
That's what happens to a team when young players appeared to be fast-tracking toward being productive at this level regress. When players whose careers are winding down look not like reliable veterans, but simply look old.
There is no aspect of the Penguins' performance to date with which management should be particularly pleased.
Consequently, aside from the nucleus of players who are either elite young talents or have the potential to be there should be no untouchables when Shero is discussing potential trades.
That doesn't mean a roster-wide purge is in order but sticking with the status quo will become more of a high-risk strategy with every point the Penguins surrender if they don't start to string together some victories.
Because it might be getting later than some people realize.
First Published November 25, 2007 12:00 am