Sidney Crosby is having a down year. He’s scoring less and people are noticing his mistakes more. Stories about made up rifts are making their way around the internet. But no one seemed to tell Sidney Crosby he’s supposed to be miserable. Because on a day when people have decided to open up the “trade Sidney Crosby” rumors like some vile early Christmas gift, the 28 year-old captain was a little too busy to pay them any mind. Instead he and every Penguins player deemed healthy enough (not injured guys like Fleury or the ill Nick Bonino) made the team’s annual trip to Children’s Hospital. If the media scrutiny or pressure was getting to him he certainly didn’t show it as he and his group, including one of his closest friends left on the team Kris Letang, moved from room to room bringing holiday cheer to sick kids.
If anyone on the team is unhappy, as I’m sure one narrative machine or another is going to tell you they are, they clearly aren’t showing it. Smiles and laughter were plentiful as youngsters zipped up and down hallways and many kids cared more about their trinkets than who was handing them over. Because the problem, and I’m talking the real deep-seeded problem with this team, isn’t the Pittsburgh Penguins. No Pittsburgh, it’s you.
The Pittsburgh Penguins do, undoubtedly, have a whole laundry list of issues right now. From their need for a top-four defenseman, to the growing pains of switching coaches mid-season, to the absolutely anemic power play there are things that need to be fixed. But at the heart of a hockey team are people. They’re real flesh and bone people who eat, sleep, breathe and read the ridiculous things we all say about them.
You think Sidney Crosby doesn’t know he’s having the worst year of his hockey career? Think again.
Former Pittsburgh Penguin Paul Martin and current San Jose Shark had this to say about Pittsburgh after they fired head coach Mike Johnston, “You have to win a Cup or else it’s a failure in Pittsburgh.” This is Paul Martin, who probably would have stayed a Penguin forever if it worked out with the cap and term to do so, not someone who was run out of town. This is a guy who loved Pittsburgh so much he penned a heartfelt goodbye on the Players Tribune where he said, “…I’d like to thank the fans. You were all so supportive and passionate.” Clearly, Paul Martin loved Pittsburgh. But he also knew that with passion can come a lack of compassion when winning is the goal.
That’s where we are again now, Pittsburgh. Your passion is getting the best of you and you’re maybe losing sight of things a little bit. Yes, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury and now Phil Kessel play for the team with the skating penguins on their jerseys, but they’re human beings too.
Mike Sullivan is probably about as different as you can get from Mike Johnston. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they only thing they do have in common is their first name. He’s also only coached the Penguins for two games.
Today at work someone told me, “the Penguins look worse than they have in decades!” This is probably the most inflammatory statement I’ve heard. It also was probably true two weeks ago. However, this leads me to believe the speaker hasn’t watched a single moment of hockey with Sullivan behind the bench.
No, the team hasn’t found their scoring touch. They have produced just one goal in their two games with him at the helm. They haven’t magically become a perfect defensive team. There was a play in the Capitals game on Monday where there were four penguins to Marc-Andre Fleury’s right and none to his left leaving two players wide open.
They are improving though. They did outshoot the Metro-leading Capitals 45-34 in the new coach’s debut and in the second period of his second game put up 18 shots while keeping the Bruins to just 4. Their shooting percentage under the new coach in his first two games is a comical 1.7%. No, I’m serious. If the Pittsburgh Penguins fired 100 shots at the net they would only score two goals at this current rate. Since they haven’t yet thrown 100 shots on goal under Sullivan the 1 goal output is pretty appropriate.
Put it this way, the last two games the team has a shooting percentage of 1.7%. Their season average is 5.9%. Both of these are well below the most current league average shooting percentage so far which is 7.3%.
I’m sure someone will tell you the answer is to take more shots. The team is already averaging the fifth highest output in the league. Clearly they’re taking shots. Not to mention that their shot totals are more aggressive under Sullivan even just two games in.
No, the issue here is that Pittsburgh expects perfection. Fire the coach mid-season and win every single game! The truth is that’s just not how it works. This Penguins team, as constructed, isn’t destined to fail despite whoever is selling you that tired tale. No, they’ve got just as much of a chance as anyone else. They do need to make changes, though, and the good news is the new coach seems willing to try new things (see: power play realignments and line shake-ups) but it isn’t going to be some overnight change. They’re going to put four guys on the same side of the ice because they got confused on whose man is whose. They’re going to go offsides and maybe ice the puck a little more working on a new breakout.
The team is working on these issues, believe it or not, because it’s their job.
I know 2009 seems like a really long time ago (I mean it really, really does) for a team with this kind of talent but winning is hard. There are teams in the NHL who have never won the Cup and others who haven’t won since 1975. Have some patience guys, it’s coming.