Perhaps the wound is too fresh to even begin to fathom what the Pittsburgh Penguins will look like when they take the ice for the start of the 2013-14 season.
After all, it was only a couple of days ago that a team with Stanley Cup expectations was unceremoniously swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Boston Bruins.
No one in their right mind could have predicted that the Penguins wouldn’t win a single game in the series or even worse – not hold a lead for a single second. Better yet, who saw the Penguins only scoring two goals in the series after averaging over four a game in the first two rounds?
How did this even happen? For me, this was just as much a case of Boston playing well as it was the Penguins playing poorly.
You have to give the Bruins credit. They capitalized on nearly every Penguins mistake and executed their game plan to perfection. They played a trap system that the Penguins have notoriously struggled against in recent playoff runs (Montreal 2010, Tampa Bay, 2011) and in the regular season (New Jersey).
The way you beat a trap is to simplify the game and make a conscious effort to avoid stretch passes and east-west plays. The Penguins refused to do so for much of this series. As a result, they and the fans are left wondering what could have been. Perhaps, the more fitting thought is what should have been.
Adjustments needed to be made after Game 1 of the series and they weren’t. Most frustrating in the series for me was the complete lack of a net-front presence against a hot goaltender.
Tuukka Rask was incredible in Games 3 and 4, there is no debate about that. He was largely untested in the first two games, but when he was called upon, he came up with the save. When a goaltender is that hot, you cool him off by scoring dirty goals. You put pucks on him from all angles and crash the net for rebounds.
Pittsburgh did very little – if any – of that in the series.
Had Boston prevailed in this series with the Penguins playing how they did in the final two games of the series, I think the pill would be easier to swallow.
Now, we’re left to speculate the future of several players and whether or not Dan Bylsma will be back behind the bench next year.
As for Bylsma, I do think we’ve seen him coach his last game for the Penguins. He’s done a lot of great things as the Penguins’ head coach and I still think he was the perfect man for the situation he walked into in 2009.
Ray Shero went out at the trade deadline with an all-in mentality. He acquired Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen.
It was up to Bylsma to figure out how to best use all his new toys and he made a couple of glaring mistakes.
First and foremost, Iginla was not used properly for much of his time (so far) in Pittsburgh. He is a natural right winger and he primarily played left wing on the Evgeni Malkin line.
To me, when Iginla played his best hockey for Pittsburgh, he was alongside Sidney Crosby and playing the left point on the power play.
Look at the Islanders series in the first round. In Game 1, Iginla rattled Evgeni Nabokov with a one-timer to the noggin on the power play. Not to mention, he scored a couple of pretty one-timer goals from that exact position during the stretch run to the playoffs. Oh, and there was that pretty important goal in Game 6 against the Islanders too.
Yet, when the Penguins’ power play struggled against Boston, was he back out there at the left point or on the right wing with Crosby?
Although, Iginla was moved back to his right wing position for Games 3 and 4 – on the third line.
During his media availability as the players cleaned out their lockers on Sunday, Bylsma was asked about Iginla’s usage. His response?
“It was the best fit for our team in where Jarome was used 5-on-5 and an effort to get him on a line with Evgeni Malkin playing that position – the left wing – was the best spot for him to be able to be in that position. We moved him to the right wing with Brandon Sutter in the series with the Bruins,” Bylsma said. “In terms of the power play, jarome was used – he was on the power play as a defenseman in the Islanders series, he was a defenseman for part of the series against the Senators and then as a forward position. And then, his position on the power play in the last series, was on the forward unit not back on the point.”
I beg to differ with his usage being the best fit for the team.
Speaking of the power play, continuing to put Kris Letang out there as the quarterback was another major mistake.
Letang is one heck of a player, but he simply cannot run a power play. He can’t lead a rush up the ice effectively, which leads to wasted dump-ins or offiside calls. His shots get blocked more often than not and he pump fakes more than a rookie quarterback in the NFL with happy feet.
The guy who should be the go-to quarterback on the power play is Paul Martin. When he’s out there, he brings a calming presence and distributes the puck to where it needs to go. His shots get through and he’s responsible enough defensively to not force something and give up a shorthanded chance.
Hear me out on this.
One of the knocks on Marc-Andre Fleury has always been that he relies on his athleticism to bail him out from time to time. I honestly think the same could be applied to Letang. How many times have we marveled at Letang’s ability to fly back into the play to make a solid backchecking play on an opponent?
Most of the time when a goaltender makes a flashy desperation save, it’s because they were out of position or left a bad rebound. Most of the time when Letang is flying back into the play, it’s because he got trapped below the goal line or made an ill-advised pinch at the blue line.
Yet, for whatever reason, Bylsma continued to put him out there on the top power play unit.
For much of the season, the debate among Pens fans has been, who would you keep? Evgeni Malkin or Letang?
Each still has one year left on their current contracts, but the team can start contract extension talks with both this summer.
After how Letang played down the stretch and in the playoffs, he didn’t exactly help his case any. Every shift in the Bruins series seemingly lowered both his monetary value and his trade value.
Again, he’s a heck of a hockey player, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how or why he is a finalist for the Norris Trophy this season.
For me, the Penguins have a bunch of young puck-moving defensemen in the system and Letang is going to want too much money in order to retain Malkin as well. At this point, I’d be considering trade options, much like Shero did with Jordan Staal a year ago.
The Penguins still lack a shutdown defense pairing and trading Letang would open up a bunch of options for Shero.
Of those players Shero acquired at the deadline, I think the ones most likely to return are Jokinen and Murray. Jokinen is an easy one because he has a year left of his contract and he seemed to fit quite well in whatever role he was used.
Aside from skating ability, I had no issues with anything Murray did on the back end. He was exactly as advertised and played well within his abilities.
As for Morrow, he started to find himself in the Bruins series and was one of a few Penguins who was noticeable for the right reasons. He showed he still has some gas left in the tank and the fire is there for him. I wouldn’t be opposed to having him back, but this could very well come down to money with him.
I think the same thing happens with Iginla, who said he’d be open to coming back next season. In order for them to be back, they’d likely have to take a significant pay cut.
Of course, Shero could trade Letang and do something (trade, buyout) with Marc-Andre Fleury and even Brooks Orpik and all of a sudden more options open up.
We’re a little under a month away from the NHL Draft and the start of free agency, but I suspect the picture of next year’s team will start to come into focus much sooner.
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