The Pittsburgh Penguins are the most intriguing team in the Eastern Conference headed into next season, if only to see what Mario Lemieux has wrought after he slammed his hand on the detonation button.
We assume Sidney Crosby is on board with the hiring of Mike Johnston, or else Mike Johnston wouldn’t have been hired. Evgeni Malkin’s a different story, and Johnston clearly understands that he needs both noggins of this two-headed monster nodding in unison.
So Mr. Johnston will go to Russia, according to Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, who explains the importance of this trip thusly:
Malkin never has done anything but play, and playtime is over because the Penguins need more from their other future Hall of Fame center.
Malkin must take ownership of the dressing room. A coach implored him to do that once. It was Michel Therrien, and over the next two seasons, the Penguins belonged to Malkin as much as, if not more, than Crosby. He was hockey's dominant force from January 2008 through June 2009. The Penguins won seven of eight playoff series over that span. The one they lost was the 2008 Cup Final, and Malkin melted in it until the last two games. A year later, he was the playoff MVP of a championship team.
What Rossi’s saying here, obviously, is that Dan Bylsma didn’t challenge Geno in the way that Therrien did, as far as leadership goes. Is there merit to that? There’s no question that it was Crosby’s team under Bylsma, with the spotlight shared only when Sid was out of the lineup.
But what Rossi is arguing is less “co-headliners” than having Malkin provide Crosby the support he hasn’t in recent years; for example, by providing some levity to the locker room:
Nobody jokes better than Malkin, as wingers from Ryan Malone to James Neal learned the hard way. Malkin uses humor to disarm and distinguish himself. He can use it to help melt the cold that has crept into the room.
Johnston must convince Malkin to earn his “A” as Crosby's top alternate. Malkin will do that by accepting that he needs to have Crosby's back by imposing his will — and personality — on the team.
Playing for the Penguins seemed about as fun as a James Neal knee to the face in the last two seasons. And while the intangible losses of players like Max Talbot and others have been well-documented when it comes to puck possession and effectiveness in the bottom six, there’s also something lost in their comportment and personalities.
Winning breeds fun, but losing doesn’t sting a locker room with camaraderie as much as it does the fractured family the Penguins had become.
So be more funny, Malkin. And by that we of course mean bring gigantic fish into the locker room while going topless.