With about one-third of the NHL season under our belts, watching the 2005 Penguins has been kinda like watching a David Lynch movie: There are elements of greatness, but it doesn't hang together and usually leaves you scratching your head. Lemieux, Crosby, Recchi, LeClair, the newly recalled Fleury -- you mean you can't win with these guys?
When the league established its new salary cap, overly optimistic Pens fans were preparing Stanley Cup parties. Even more circumspect fans felt Pittsburgh would be playoff-bound at least. So many teams, like those profligate New York Rangers, had overspent and had payrolls well over the salary cap. The poor little Penguins, by contrast, were of necessity so far under the cap that they could sign all kinds of talent, instead of shedding it.
But today, those profligate New York Rangers sit atop the Atlantic Conference. The Penguins -- with oodles of new talent and the better-than-advertised Sidney Crosby -- are at the bottom.
As the always-understated Chuck Noll once said of his squad, we have problems and they are many.
Pens management apparently believes goaltending is among them. Despite budgetary and cap constraints, the team called up former No. 1 pick Marc-Andre Fleury from the Baby Pens. But there's no telling how long Fleury will remain in goal, though the team placed Jocelyn Thibault on waivers the same day. Fleury can play about another 20 games before he hits his bonus, which would put the Pens over budget by about $3 million. Perhaps they're looking for a quick fix from Fleury, or they hope to re-structure his contract.
It's not just that Fleury is younger and quicker than Thibault and Sebastien Caron: While the vets warmed their tootsies in front of the fire during the NHL's labor dispute, Fleury was busy in net for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. While there, he posted a record of 10-0-2, 1.57 goals-against and a .939 save percentage.
But saying the goalies stink, while fun, hardly tells the whole tale. I did a little straw poll about what is wrong with the Penguins. (OK, I asked five of my friends at dinner.) All those polled responded, "No defense."
Perhaps the problem lies in the departure of Lorne Molleken, the Pens' goaltender coach and defensive wizard. Whatever the reason, too often defensemen are playing the puck instead of covering players. They're giving opponents easy angles to the net. They aren't getting any help from the wingers, and they aren't setting themselves up to hit.
Note to the Pens: Rules changes notwithstanding, you can still hit the guy with the puck. They merely opened up the game, guys; they didn't change it to badminton.
There are problems on the other side of the ice, too. This team was built around the talents of Crosby and Mario Lemieux, and the plan was to score goals by the bushel. That hasn't happened. The Pens power play especially seems to move in slow motion, predictably moving the puck around the perimeter, from Lemieux to Recchi to Crosby, with only LeClair in front of the net. And then comes the inevitable shot from the point. I nearly dozed off during the nine power plays the Pens had playing the Sabres Nov. 29.
If you and I know what the Pens will do on the power play, don't you think the Rangers know, too?
Part of the problem may be laxity. As Ryan Malone told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Maybe at the beginning of games ... we're not working hard, seeing if we can get by just on [talent]." Likewise, spake center Erik Christiansen, "It seems like sometimes our intensity and our drive to win is not really there." (Hockey players truly are a different breed: I can't imagine such frankness from any other professional athlete.)
Were we overly optimistic to believe the salary cap and rules changes would put the Pens in contention? Were the players, too, lulled into a false sense of superiority? It's time to focus on the basics -- such as playing intense hockey from the drop of the puck to the final horn. Perhaps Eddie Olczyk should threaten them with repeated viewings of Eraserhead if they don't step up their play.