Who are the Pittsburgh Penguins?
They’re the team of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They’re a team with offensive flourish, from the forward spot through the blue line. They’re consistently one of the best teams in the regular season, but one that doesn’t meet the exceedingly high expectations of its ownership in the playoffs.
That’s not the identity Crosby wants them to have anymore, or at least that’s the sense one gets from reading his chat with Pierre LeBrun of ESPN this week. Here’s a block of Sid; take a shot every time he uses the word “elevate”:
"I think as far as finding that identity, and don't get me wrong I think in the regular season it's important to have success and we've proven that, but we have to find a way in the playoffs to elevate our game," said Crosby. "It doesn't mean change our identity, but we have to elevate it. We haven't done quite as good a job at doing that. Me personally, I'm not taking myself out of that mix either, going pointless against Boston (in the 2013 conference finals) and not really doing a whole lot in the New York series, it's not easy to deal with that in the off-season. You don't like having memories like that.
"That being said, you have to find a way to elevate your game. I think for us, each round it gets tougher and tougher, there's less space, it's more physical, maybe we got away with a bit too much on skill during the regular season and weren't able to grind teams down and play the way you see some teams have success in the playoffs. Keeping that in the back of our mind should help us going into next year. It's always easy looking back, but I would agree with that, that we definitely have to find a way to elevate our game and be a little bit more gritty and make sure we're on the right side of those 2-1 games. We have to improve there. But that's hockey, and that's the exciting part about playing, you have those challenges every year."
So whose responsibility is it to “elevate” and adjust and play a more demanding style?
It sounds like Crosby wants a coach that’ll get that out of them in the regular season, and encourage the style in the postseason, but doesn’t that all start with the general manager?
All the focus on Jim Rutherford has been about the coach he’s going to hire, but that’s only one component of the identity. 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.
Crosby’s essentially right. 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.
The one facet of the Penguins’ identity that’s hardest to determine: Do they still feel like winners?
On paper, it would seem that way: Consistent playoff appearances without danger of missing them, and trips to the conference final and semifinal in the last two seasons.
In the room, it’s a different vibe. As Crosby told LeBrun: “We've given ourselves opportunities but haven't found a way to get back there and win.”
Locating grit is the easy part; recapturing your swagger … well, there’s only one way to do that.