The Penguins Are A Bad Team

Here’s usually where the wheels come off and people start spewing things like “BAD FAN!” at me. I’m just going to say it.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a bad team.

I discussed, at length, the problem the team is facing with injuries right now. I had posed the question to Twitter (from my personal account) after the Rangers game and got mostly the same responses as always. I asked “what is the expiration date on the injury excuse?” That has been sitting in the fridge for a year now. It has to go bad at some point, right? Unless that excuse is made of the same material that Twinkies are made of, the excuse has gone stale and is no longer valid.

We’ve hit that point.

It is time to throw the injury excuse in the bin and come to terms with the fact that this team is grossly, grossly underperforming. Do I deny that injuries have played a role in this underperformance? No, I don’t. The dangers of hockey are vast and injuries happen. They happen to everyone. Yes, the Penguins now lead the NHL in man games lost (I believe it was 210 as of last night), but they have a great team in the minors and a wonderful pool of young talent to rely on to fill roster spots for 10-15 games.

I understand that there’s no player who can fill Sidney Crosby’s spot, except for maybe Evgeni Malkin, but the team has done relatively well without Sid. For the sake of comparison, last season’s team went without Sid or Geno (or many others) from February onward. The team from last spring played with undying heart and grit. They weren’t a skilled team, but they never, ever quit playing. They never looked defeated, no matter the obstacle. They continued to play through the injuries. They went into every game knowing that they had to keep goals against to two or fewer. They knew they would have to win puck battles and fight for every inch and every opportunity.

Where’s the grit and determination with this squad?

If you could play last season’s team vs the team we’ve seen for the last month, I’d lay good money on last season’s team winning a 7 game series.

After last night’s embarrassment to the New Jersey Devils, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen had finally had enough and spoke up (all credit on quotes goes to Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette).

Orpik had the following to say:

“The accountability in this room has to be a lot better. We aren’t reacting to adversity very well right now. You can’t feel sorry for yourselves.”
“One goal’s not going to do it. You can pick apart every goal they get, but one goal isn’t going to do it. Don’t care if we got 50 or 60 shots on net. One goal isn’t going to do it.”

“I thought the energy was actually great last night. Once they scored a couple of goals on us, our attitude changed. You can’t hang your head and feel sorry for yourself like that. It won’t get you anywhere.”

“No accountability. We gave up another short-handed goal. We give up breakaways. Another dumb penalty. The accountability has got to be a lot better.”

“We give up a couple of goals, and everybody’s attitude [stinks] afterward. You can see on the ice, our energy starts out great, then they score a couple of goals and instead of getting [angry] and battling back, we just come out flatter and kind of feel sorry for ourselves, hang our heads.”

“We start taking stupid, lazy penalties and start getting off our game plan and doing whatever we want.”

Matt Niskanen:

“It felt just like the night before. It’s really deflating. We were in control of the game, then I hit the post on a power play. It was just a huge momentum swing.”

So, by the metrics exhibited by many Pens fans over the course of the last year, saying those things make Orpik and Niskanen bad teammates and bad fans. I know that I don’t always have the most popular opinion, but this is going to ludicrous levels. After Orpik’s comments came out I heard numerous people (we’re talking double digits)  saying that Orpik shouldn’t say such things; the team has too many injuries, what more can they do?; Orpik has no business talking about accountability because he’s made mistakes; Orpik hasn’t had a phenomenal year so he has no right to criticize anyone.

Let’s get something straight, people. The Penguins are a bad team right now. If you are saying different, you need to take the rose colored glasses off for a few minutes and look at the team again. Just because the team is bad doesn’t make you less of a fan to say so. I know a lot of people were fans of the God awful X-Generation teams, but that doesn’t mean you were a “bad fan.” Hell, most people use attendance to games involving Ouellet, Koltsov, Fata, etc as a sign of true fandom.

Why must it be a continual pissing match with everyone over who the better fan is?

I’m going to channel my inner Orpik now and do a little calling out of things that just need to stop.

1. Jokes/Insults about people leaving a game early to “beat traffic.”

The jokes are tired and unoriginal. People paid for their tickets (presumably). They can do with them as they wish. If they want to walk through the gate and turn around and leave they are entitled to do exactly that. Grousing about the people leaving early has become a diversionary tactic to ensure we don’t talk about the on-ice product. It has also become another feather in the cap of the “true fans.”

2. The arena is too quiet.

While I agree in principle, I would also like to remind everyone how there’s no happy medium with the people who bitch and moan about this. They complain that Montreal is too loud. They complain that people in Detroit never sit down. They make fun of Washington for being prompted to cheer. There’s no winning with these people about this topic. CEC could crumble to the foundation from fans going nuts and these people would complain that it was too much celebration.

3. “Everything is wonderful”

No, it isn’t. While not everything is doom and gloom, refusing to see that the team is not playing well is as bad as saying they’ll never win another game. Is there some sort of 12 step program for some people? They need to get around to admitting there’s a problem before they can attempt to fix it. Ignoring glaring weaknesses indicates one of a few things. It shows the person as blindly ignorant or so wrapped up in the dogma and bullshit of true “fandom” that the truth is a malleable item that can be twisted to fit their needs.

It is possible to criticize the team and still be a fan. It is possible to WANT the team to win, but know they don’t have the chops TO win. Last year’s playoffs were the start of the schism. I wanted to see the Pens pull out a win in game 7, but I had the gall to say *gasp* on the internet that I didn’t think the Pens had what it took to win game 7. I was called a fairweather fan, a bad fan, that I had no faith in the team. I was told to turn in my fan card and that I shouldn’t be allowed to wear a Penguins jersey ever again.

So, does that mean every player on the Pens fits in that category, too, because they lost a 1-0 game 7 at home and didn’t fit into the expectation and mold created in your superfan mind?

Get real.

The Penguins are bad right now. There’s been a complete lack of leadership until last night, when Orpik finally had enough. Josh Yohe also reported that the team would be practicing this morning. Clearly coach Bylsma has had enough, too. The team ALWAYS had the day after back-to-back games off. Not only is the team practicing on a Sunday (a rarity), but they are practicing on a Sunday after back-to-back games.

If I were Bylsma I would simply say “Well, in a combined 120 minutes of hockey you’ve scored 2 goals, allowed 6, and played a total of about 25 minutes competitive hockey. Get skating. You should have plenty of energy and legs to skate for a few hours.”

Hopefully Orpik’s comments serve as a wake-up call. I don’t mind the team losing (not that I enjoy it) if they at least were in the game and competitive. What I do mind is this bullshit we’ve seen for the last 4-6 weeks.

Since Black Friday, the Pens are 9-9. The Pens have managed wins again Ottawa, Montreal, Washington, Carolina (twice), New York Islanders, Buffalo, Chicago, and Winnipeg. They have lost to New York Rangers (twice), Boston, Philadelphia (twice), Detroit, Ottawa, and New Jersey (twice).

Of those victories, only 1 came against a team that was in the playoffs when being played against (Chicago).

Explain to me how a team can be amazinggreatwonderfulnothingiswrong when you cannot win against teams currently in playoff position? How is a team so perfect if they’ve managed to go from 1st place in the entire league to 18th overall in about a month’s time? How did they go from 1st in their division to 4th if they are so magnificent?

Right now the Pens are barely in the playoffs. They are the 8th seed with 46 points. Winnipeg has 45 and Washington has 44. This is a team dangerously close to falling out of playoffs and digging themselves into such a hole that they cannot climb back out.

Good teams beat bad teams. Bad teams get beat by good teams.

The Penguins are a bad team. At least for now. And they’re running out of time to fix it.

The Penguins Problem: Injuries

What in the name of sweet baby Jesus is wrong with the Penguins?

I’m not saying it to be a troll or being ironically detached from things. I’m saying it because I legitimately don’t know what is wrong with this team, nor do I know if there is any way to “fix” what ails them. There are a number of avenues to explore, and I don’t know if any are correct, let alone defining one as singularly accurate. This is my attempt to sort out my thoughts and get some things out there in the hopes that it generates some discussion. By all means, feel free to disagree with every single thing I say and give me an alternate argument. I am no Andy Sutton, I’m just going off what I can see and what I know from my own life experiences.

Injuries.

Yes, we’ve been down this road before. There is no “fix” for injuries. They are a part of sports, especially hockey. Unfortunately guys get hurt. It does appear that the Penguins have been hit extra hard by the injury bug over the last few seasons. Collectively, I feel, this is due to a few major factors, including, but not limited to: coach Bylsma’s grinding system, ineptitude of league offices/on-ice officials, and the sense of wild west justice in the NHL.

I do feel Bylsma’s system is more demanding, physically, on the players which puts them in more contact and breaks down the body a little quicker/harder. It isn’t a direct one-to-one comparison, though. Bylsma’s system results in more short-term injuries or needing a game or two off to rest. The Penguins have been dealing with major, profound injuries to important players (and some role players, too).

Sidney Crosby was hit twice in the head and missed nearly a full calendar year. Was under every microscope in the world and, as the face the of the NHL, (fairly or unfairly) needed to be protected a little bit. Returns to game action to all the fanfare deserving of someone of that caliber…and then gets clocked in the head by David Krecji’s elbow and Krecji doesn’t even get penalized. Sid goes back on the IR.

Kris Letang gets absolutely leveled by Max Pacioretty. There was no penalty on the play. Even by the most liberal interpretation, it was a violation of Rule 48. Letang returned to game action and scored the OT winner, but has since been on the shelf with concussion symptoms. Pacioretty was eventually suspended 3 games and then proceeded to go on TV and bitch and moan about “the way the wind is blowing” in the NHL. Apparently he doesn’t agree with the wind blowing in the direction of not hitting a guy who isn’t looking in the side of the head. Go figure. I wonder if he has an opinion on not letting up on a hit in/around the stanchions?

Robert Bortuzzo, much like Letang, was hit in the head by a renowned sack of monkey shit, Zac Rinaldo, and there was neither a penalty on the play NOR supplemental discipline from the all mighty office of Brendan Shanahan. Bortuzzo, thankfully, has finally recovered and been returned to Wilkes Barre-Scranton as of January 7, 2012.

I want you to remember, there were no penalties called on those hits. These are not the type of injuries that are the result of Dan Bylsma’s system. These injuries are the direct result of neither players nor officials policing the game. If ever you need an example of just how poorly managed the game can be, look at the Penguins-Islanders brawl from Feb. 11, 2011.

I completely understand that there will always be a human element to the game, especially when it comes to officiating. It’s an unenviable job. Much like the weatherman, you never really hear about what a great job a referee does. The negative is what one hears about. However, it has become so bad on a night-in-night-out basis with the on-ice officials that it truly has made me miss the days of Bill McCreary’s mustache. At least you knew what you would get with McCreary (let them play until late, then make yourself the center of attention by calling some bullshit). Is it so hard to err on the side of caution and call penalties on plays like those? If you keep penalizing the offending teams they will eventually stop doing it (or, at worst, those players will no longer get ice time).

Matt Cooke was vilified, justifiably, for playing recklessly and putting his team at a disadvantage. He has since changed his playing style and has been hit in the head with cheapshots multiple times this season, all have gone unpunished.

The wild west system of justice the NHL has doesn’t work. If you hit a guy cheaply you had to answer the bell. Now? Well, it’s hard to say. You need to have guys on the roster who can play. You can’t have a Steve MacIntyre or Eric Godard on the ice regularly because they are a hockey abortion on skates. The role of the enforcer is gone. When Brian Burke has finally given up and demoted Colton Orr (not without wailing lamentations about truculence and the direction of the NHL) you know times have changed.

Now you have players of all levels running around and taking liberties with others because there is no accountability. There’s no way to tell what will or won’t be penalized. There’s even less idea about what hits will and will not be reviewed and disciplined further. If I were a player I’d take every opportunity I got to weaken an opponent by taking out a star. Even if you do get penalized, the notion of a “make up call” and ebb-and-flow officiating effectively renders penalties non-deterrents. Brendan Shanahan was given the keys to the castle and given a mandate to clean up the league and put his foot down. He may, in a sense, actually be worse than Colin Campbell. At least we all knew Colin was completely incompetent and had his wheel of justice. We have no idea what to make of Shanhan. Make a stink about a hit on TSN and he might look at it. Play in a non-traditional market or employ a demon like Cooke and it’s apparently free rein on cheapshots against you.

If you can’t protect your own players/teammates with a tough guy you need to be able to count on the league holding psychos accountable. The league is not doing their job.

As it stands now, I fully support Donald Fehr and support a work stoppage if it means the NHL gets serious about player safety and subsequent discipline for violations. These are not the injuries that occur because of Dan Bylsma’s system. These are the injuries that occur because of the systemic failure of the league to protect its most valuable assets: the players.

With the injuries have come numerous other problems. The injuries can be overcome by replacing players. Sure, there’s no true way to replace a Crosby or a Letang, but when you have Malkin and young studs like Simon Despres (who can fill in and get some invaluable NHL experience) you can maintain. What you cannot do, and I fear this is what is happening to the Pens, is allow the seeds of doubt and inevitability to germinate in the brain. From what some of the players have been saying over the past few weeks, I am deeply concerned this is a team that has given up on themselves. Starting with the Flyers (three games ago) the Pens have looked like a team completely incapable of competing, let alone winning. They looked like a competent team for the first 10 minutes against the Rangers and then fell apart.

After Deryk Engelland was suspended for his hit on Chicago’s Marcus Kruger (a dirty hit, but no less of a hit than what Niklas Kronwall does nightly) Brooks Orpik was asked about his opinion on the NHL’s discipline. His response: “I think we have strong opinions, but they aren’t going to change the suspension.” While Orpik may not have an objective opinion of things, he also carries weight with the team and often speaks the truth when none other will.

Likewise, Matt Niskanen had the most telling quote after the Pens 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. When asked about the injuries that keep happening (in this case, Pascal Dupuis and Arron Asham), Niskanen replied “I can honestly say that I’m not surprised. That’s the way it’s been going. We’ve just had some really, really bad luck.”

If ever there were two quotes you didn’t want to hear, those would them. Those are the thoughts of a team that is up against the wall and admitting defeat. They are morphing into a “can’t win, don’t try” mentality.

Last season’s team was ravaged by injuries, even worse than this current team, and the 2011 Penguins would annihilate the 2012 Penguins if they played one another. Last season the team lacked skill, but they stayed in games with pure determination and will. This squad? They look disinterested and demoralized. They look like a team that knows they’re outmatched. Last year’s squad knew they were outmatched but refused to let up. This squad routinely takes a period (or more) off each game.

But how do you fix it? Do you change coaches? No. This isn’t entirely a coaching problem. Bylsma has them playing and then something happens and they quit. Do you make a blockbuster trade? Maybe, but there’s no promise that works and you may end up doing more harm than good. Do you bench players or make a stink in the press? Possibly, but then you come across as petulant and the agenda-driven NHL will ensure you never are the benefit of the doubt regarding penalties and player safety.

I’m no Andy Sutton, but I don’t see a fix for this, and certainly not an easy fix. This team has not been able to compete with top-tier teams this season and there’s no reason for it. Yes, they were decimated on defense by injuries, but that doesn’t excuse only being able to generate 4 goals combined in the last three games.

Malkin and Neal have been playing their collective balls off. Kunitz, too. These are top line players. Having them play 1st line minutes is not having them play above their level. Pascal Dupuis has been the surprise of the season and has been filling in admirably. Jordan Staal, too, has been having a phenomenal offensive year. Kennedy has missed time with injury, but is generating chances. Steve Sullivan has been relegated to 3rd line duty, but is still a heads-up type player. Joe Vitale has never, ever quit on a shift. Neither has Adams or Cooke.

This is not a popgun offense, but it sure looks like one.

Can you really point the finger entirely at Letang missing time? I agree that he may be the most valuable player on the team (who does not get the proper recognition he deserves), but can we really make that case? The Pens generate offense from the defense and with the defense in complete shambles…perhaps.

These are dark times. No idea how this team can ring up 8 against Buffalo, 3 against the Blackhawks, 4 against the Jets, and 4 against the Hurricanes…and then 2 against the Flyers, 1 against the Devils and 1 against the Rangers.

There is no fix to a problem that cannot be identified. And there certainly isn’t a fix to a mental problem.

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