What's next for the Pittsburgh Penguins?

The body isn't even cold yet, and the experts are already dissecting the corpse that is the 2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguin season.  There's no doubt that the Penguins were supposed to be doing the sweeping, supposed to ride their 15 game winning streak all the way to the Stanley Cup.  This team was confident, quick, and scoring in bunches.  Add the additions of Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Doug Murray, and Jussi Jokinen to an already potent lineup, and it seemed the recipe for a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh was complete.

But something funny happened during the 2013 playoffs.  The Pens struggled mightily against the 8th seed New York Islanders.  Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury battled the puck repeatedly in Games 3 and 4, with pucks bouncing off boards and off him and in.  Granted, the Pens' defense let him down on several occasions, but the fact remained...Fleury struggled on easy shots, allowing goals that sapped the Pens' momentum.  In fact, if the Penguins' offense didn't score as often as they did, it could be argued that the Pens wouldn't have made it out of the first round.  Replacing Fleury with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun saved the Penguins in the first round, as Vokoun provided steady, if not unorthodox, goaltending that propelled them into the next round.

It appeared that the Pens learned from that scare, dismantling the Ottawa Senators in five games.  The Sens managed a gritty win in Game 3 in double overtime, but the young Senators were no match for a Penguins team that seemed to be on a mission.

Then came the Boston Bruins.  No one expected a sweep...the Bruins were considered a much tougher opponent.  It was supposed to be a matchup of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.  Pittsburgh had scored 47 goals in their first two rounds in only 11 games.  The Bruins were riding the goaltending of Tuukka Rask and playing a hardnosed style that brought them to the Conference Finals.  Many expected a six or seven game series.

When the dust settled, the Penguins scored twice in four games, were outscored 12-2 in four games, and the names of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jarome Iginla, and James Neal were pointless in the four games.  Considering the fact that these names combined for 69 points in the playoffs in only 11 games, this result must be considered an absolute failure by every member of the Penguins organization.  The Bruins swept the mighty Penguins, and it appeared the only member of the Penguins roster that showed up to play was goalie Vokoun.  Aside from Game 2 of the Boston series, Vokoun gave a sparkling performance in the playoffs...while Fleury seemed to pick up where he left off in 2012 against the Philadelphia Flyers.

So...now what? 

Pens fans may hate me for my suggestions, but I want to make clear that I have been a Penguins fan my entire life...and my opinion isn't one of a band-wagoner.  This team needs a culture change...it needs to rebuild.

First change needs to happen in goal.  Sorry fellow Pens fans, the atmosphere in Pittsburgh has killed Fleury.  I suggest a trade, not only to solidify Pittsburgh's crease, but to give poor Fleury a new lease on life.  Everywhere he goes, he will be reminded of his failures in 2012 and 2013.  In this case, Fleury was replaced as the starter by Vokoun.  No one cares about the regular season...at the end of the day, goalies will be remembered for their ability to win championships.  Fans cannot allow sentiment to blind them.  Fleury is a fan favorite, but is weak and fragile mentally.  For the Pens to get over this hump, he needs to go.  Unfortunately, his trade stock is low...don't think other teams haven't seen how he performed in the last two playoffs.  The idea that spelling him with Vokoun in the regular season would keep him fresh for the postseason has proven to be false.  For whatever reason, his play is not matching his world-class talent.  If the Pens do keep him, they will need to find a way to get him refocused.  Penguin fans cannot cling to the past any longer...in 2008, Fleury allowed at least one soft goal in each of the Detroit victories in the Finals, and in 2009, while he won the Stanley Cup...he was way out of his element in Games 1, 2, and 5.  Even his two seasons of playoff success were plagued with wild inconsistencies.  No one remembers what you've done yester-year...all that matters is what you've done lately.  On that front, Fleury fails miserably.

The second change...the team needs to get tougher.  Not Matt Cooke tough.  I'm talking Steve Yzerman/Guy Carbonneau tough.  The Penguin forwards are soft...and the lack of response to the Dan Paille hit on Crosby in Game 4 is a damning indictment of this.  Yes, you may risk a penalty, but by not responding to a blindside shot to your captain and best player sends a message that it's open season on your team's best players.  The toughness scale doesn't mean how many bodies you can slam into the boards, but how much you are willing to fight to get to the dirty areas of the ice...in front of the net and in the corners, and how much you are willing to defend your teammates.  What the Bruins were willing to sacrifice was miles above what the Penguins were willing to sacrifice in the toughness department.  Boston's Gregory Campbell is living proof of this...killing a penalty on a broken leg.  Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask played great, but 90% of the shots were either into the logo on his jersey, or shots he saw all the way.  The Pens need to trade for players willing to pay the price, and jettison the passengers that were evident in the Boston series. 

Third...take the captaincy away from Crosby.  I can hear the collective gasps from all the Penguin faithful now.  But hear me out.  It's no secret that opponents key on him, and his antics aren't becoming to a team captain.  You never saw Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic resort to what Crosby does when he's frustrated.  The kid needs to have the captaincy removed to take some of the pressure off him.  He plays with a streak of entitlement, evident by his actions whenever there is a perceived foul against him.  His body language and facial expressions indicate this.  By removing the "C", you give him the freedom to just play hockey, and not be the leader of a team that needs leadership, not scoring skills.  Who would be the new captain?  Resign Pascal Dupuis and give him the captaincy.  Crosby needs to get tougher mentally, and do as Bruins captain Zdeno Chara does...not respond to opponents' attempts to goad him into on ice stupidity.  Dupuis is a captain in every sense of the word...and he needs the chance to prove it.  He led by example in the playoffs.  Crosby would benefit by just being able to play his game and not worry about the "C" on his chest.

Fourth...get some honest to goodness defensemen.  Please!  Brooks Orpik and Douglas Murray are the only two physical defensemen on the team that would be in a team's top four defense pairing.  Kris Letang has worldclass offensive skills, but he was exposed defensively against the stronger Boston forwards.  Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen are both keepers as depth defensemen, and the Pens must keep Mark Eaton in the fold.  But they need to trade for two more rugged, top four physical defensemen.  Defensemen who know they are defensemen...not offensive-minded defenders. 

Fifth and finally...there needs to be a change behind the bench.  Dan Bylsma is a fantastic coach, but he did not reach his players when it counted.  The power play against the Bruins was abysmal.  I lost track of the amount of times I saw the Penguins try to Mario their way into the offensive zone, instead of working as a unit.  Bylsma was outcoached by Claude Julien, and his inability to lift his team to the Finals after the 2009 triumph proves more than most Pens fans want to admit.  This marks the fourth time a lower seed has defeated them.  Change has to be made if they ever want the Stanley Cup again.

Bottom line...this team cannot stay status quo any longer.  This summer will be very interesting for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It’s a Canadian tradition…one that may be a bit frayed these days.

Hockey Night in Canada.  Names like Bob Cole.  Harry Neale.  Dick Irvin.  Ron MacLean.  Chris Cuthburt, Don Wittman, and Foster Hewitt filled our Saturday evenings, either by radio or by television.  We watched the greats of the past, listened to the images that the radio announcers painted…and for many of us, we dreamed.

Dreamed of clean ice.  Dreamed of crisp winter days and frozen ponds.  For many of us, 6:30am practices at the local arena were the norm.  Our breath could be seen in the cold early morning air.  Layers of snow would coat the landscapes around us, and the sparkles could be seen as the light of the moon would reflect off the snow.  Sometimes, light snow would fall, and for any of us who can remember these moments, added a sense of surrealism to the scene.  Anyone who has laced on a pair of skates knows what I am referring to.

Hockey has its own set of memories.  Names like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Patrick Roy filled my childhood hockey memories.  I can hear the calls of the likes of Bob Cole and Chris Cuthburt calling the plays of these amazing players.  I can still remember the two Stanley Cup championships the Penguins won in 1991 and 1992 like it was yesterday.  Today, I picked up a stats book published by the NHL and thumbed through the names.  It was a review of the 2009-10 season, and suddenly, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

The NHL has been in existence since 1917.  Many names have come and gone.  We hear of the great names of the 1950s and 1960s.  Those my age have never had the privilege of watching those names play hockey…but we watch the replays and marvel at the way the game was played then.  We also see the sadness of those who have watched these names, and I realize now that not only do these names represent a more innocent age for these people…it also reminds them of the passage of time.

As I thumbed through the book of stats, the lack of names I recognized shocked me.  When I was a child, it never once occurred to me that the players I was watching would one day not be playing.  The likes of Lemieux and Gretzky dazzled their fans in so many ways, for so long, that it never crossed my mind that like every NHL generation, age would catch up to even these immortal players.  It never once registered that retirement would claim even these players.

Now the names of Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Carey Price grace the covers of NHL game programs.  And they are very deserving.  They are amazing players, and I hope the younger generation who watched these players debut in the NHL cling to every memory these athletes give them.  Especially with the concussion problems Crosby has recently overcome; don’t take these players’ gifts for granted.  They are fleeting.

In 1997, Mario Lemieux announced his retirement from the NHL.  I wrote a column in the local newspaper about what players like Lemieux meant to the NHL.  Of course, I could never know at the time that Lemieux would come back in 2000 to thrill his fans once again.  At the time, the reality of time became a poignant intrusion into my 19 year old life.  It was then I realized fully that time moves on, with or without these players I cherished for so long.

It can be said that the sports world is a universe, and each pro league is a galaxy in this broad universe.  Every galaxy has their stars…the athletes who comprise the teams.  But superstars are the shooting stars…athletes that come along and light up the galaxy (and sometimes the universe) with their skills and gifts.  But like shooting stars, their journey is brief when compared to the passage of time.

Wayne Gretzky.  Gordie Howe.  Bobby Orr.  Guy LaFleur.  Jacques Plante.  Mario Lemieux.  Patrick Roy.  Steve Yzerman.  Grant Fuhr.  Paul Coffey.  Ray Bourque.  All these names lit up the NHL galaxy during their playing days…and they could be joined by so many more.  But like shooting stars, their careers are brief and fleeting.  Enjoy these players while they play…the time for retirement draws too near too soon…and in every retirement of a superstar, another shooting star fades away, leaving behind memories of their skills…and the lament of time lost too soon.

Every so often, events happen in one’s life that makes us sit back and pause for a split second.  These events offer us a break from the every day grind and stress of life, make us realize that there are moments that we won’t forget that occur every day.

The Stanley Cup is the stuff of legend.  Its mystique is known the world over.  Legends have hoisted it to the heavens over the decades in its history.  Hockey fans of a distinguished age remember the likes of Richard (Maurice and Henri), Howe, Orr, Beliveau, and Plante (just to name a very few) winning hockey’s holy grail.  Indeed, the Stanley Cup has provided players and fans with untold memories.

In April of 2011, I had the privilege of traveling to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and immediately ventured into the Great Hall, the site of all the historic trophies in the NHL.  They were all there…Vezina, Art Ross, Norris, Hart, Masterton, among others.  They framed the central point of the Hall…the Stanley Cup.  The famous trophy was front and center.  Although I had seen the Cup on other occasions, this was the first time I was able to actually approach it and touch it.  As I studied the names engraved on its silver surface, the history of the NHL and earlier was evident.  The memories of that day still resonate.  If anyone has the chance to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame, do it.  The visit to the Great Hall alone is worth it.

But the Stanley Cup memories don’t end there.  It’s one thing to schedule a visit with Lord Stanley’s Cup.  It’s another to actually stumble across the moment randomly.

Today, the Stanley Cup made an appearance at a local hockey shop in the mall near me.  I happened to be at the shop and once again was witness to the Cup…this time, outside of the Great Hall.  After once again reading the names, I stood back and watched as customers entered the shop, to be greeted by the silver shine of hockey’s greatest prize.  I also had a chance to chat a bit with a member of the Hall, whose job is to safeguard the Cup.

As I watched the lineup for pictures with the unscheduled visitor, it struck me that at the core of every hockey fan is the reverence we all have for the Stanley Cup.  We stood around, talking as complete strangers, yet with a hushed tone that underlined the silent thrill of seeing the Cup in person.  Complete strangers find a common bond, and we find ourselves united as fans.  There are no enemies when the Stanley Cup is present…just a common respect for the history of the sport we love.  Hockey is readily available conversational pocket change.  The Stanley Cup represents the unity we all share through the greatest game on earth.  Regardless of what team you cheer for, regardless of the debates that rage in the hockey world that particular day…when we are near the Stanley Cup, we share the love of the game that surpasses all team allegiance.

Seeing the Stanley Cup at the Great Hall is amazing.  But seeing the Cup through a random chance encounter is spectacular.  When we as hockey fans have a silver lining like the Cup invade our lives unexpectedly, it is a memory that lasts a lifetime.   It’s a memory that will unite all who were at the store that day, as we will always remember the day that Stanley dropped by unexpectedly.