Pittsburgh Penguins’ Identity Crisis

Steve Downie Fight

Downie leading the grit and toughness identity of the Penguins (Charles LeClaire – USAToday Sports)

By: Jim Meinecke

As the Penguins fell again last postseason to the New York Rangers, the time of reckoning fell upon the organization. The decisions on Shero and Bylsma were somewhat swift, and a new direction set sail. Jim Rutherford came aboard and then Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet soon after. The team talked about being harder to play against and grit and toughness was added throughout the lineup. In fact, Rutherford is still making this a point of emphasis with the recently acquired Maxim Lapierre. So after all of the coaching changes, roster moves, and 48 games this season, Penguins fans are left wondering who are the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Crosby and Malkin

Crosby and Malkin at a final regular season game in 2012 (Getty Images)

Going on a decade now, they are a team built solid down the middle with offensive firepower. A team led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is one of great skill and finesse. At the same time, Crosby has been praised throughout his career for being one of the most gifted grinders to play the game. He has always been known to go into the tough corner battles and dirty areas in the front of the net to help bolster scoring chances. Malkin has taken some heat in the past for not being a very good two-way player, but this is clearly something he has worked on the past few seasons and the results are clear to see. With these players, often times a coaches system is thrown out of the window. As Jesse Marshall so eloquently describes in his article for ThePensblog, while Johnston may ideally like for the F1 and F2 to go up the ice in tandem and gain an advantage on a soft dump, those things don’t happen much of the time with Crosby and Malkin. In fairness to them, not many players have the other worldly talent of these two to stick handle and deke around 2-3 defenders at a clip. Sometimes, however, these things can be a determent and lead to odd man situations going the other way. So for good or bad, the Penguins have been a team built on skill, and they still are to some extent, but not so fast…

As I mentioned earlier, due to multiple playoff failures, adding grit and toughness was and is an area of focus for Jim Rutherford. As Greg Wyshynski mentions in this Puck Daddy article from June of 2014:

“The Penguins have seen a small army of gritty, grinding players depart through the years – from Max Talbot to Matt Cooke to Ruslan Fedotenko to, yes, Jordan Staal – and haven’t sufficiently replaced them. The team still has a backbone, but it’s constantly missing essential vertebrae.”

This is one of many reasons fans believe the team has struggled in the postseason when defense is raised, ice is limited, and physicality is elevated. So the grit and toughness void is no longer present with players like Downie, Lapierre, Sill, Bortuzzo, and even Comeau. It’s a fine line though because the Penguins want to be tougher to play against, but they don’t really embody a mucking and grinding style throughout their lineup. Some players on some nights play this way, but in general, even this season, they have won largely because of skill and executing Johnston’s system. Moreover, the team may have more grit, but they are still undersized compared to most as Josh Yohe mentioned on Twitter today:

Yohe

When Steve Downie was signed this summer, he immediately endeared himself to fans by saying he would protect Crosby and Malkin and teams wouldn’t take liberties against star players any longer.

Downie

 

Yet Downie found himself fairly helpless as Rinaldo knocked Letang out of the game with a vicious hit last week. Players like Downie can retaliate, but there is no way to eliminate that stuff from the game. So, just something for the readers to ponder…have the Penguins really looked tougher to play against recently? The answer of course is no. With that thought in mind, Wyshynski went on in his June article to say the following:

Anyone that watched the Columbus series saw the kind of hungry, tenacious and physical team that’ll give the Penguins fits if they don’t have the personnel and the style to match. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to become it. You either end up with a coach and players that are easily integrated into the existing roster, or you end up with the experiment in oil and water that was the 2013-14 Vancouver Canucks…Locating grit is the easy part; recapturing your swagger… well, there’s only one way to do that.

That last part is so important. Rutherford can add as much grit to the lineup as he wants, but the team still needs chemistry and it needs a winning attitude. All of these things add up for one final question: who are the Pittsburgh Penguins? It is a question that was asked over the summer, and it is a question that remains a mystery over half way through the season.