Is That A System In Your Pocket?
September 18, 2001
When the season endedwhat now seems like years agoyou could see the glimmer in Mario's eye. Something had caught his fancy, and it didn't seem to be the girl at the end of the bench who backup goalie Garth Snow had been surveying ever since he made his way to the end of the bench. No, what captured the attention of Mario Lemieux was the New Jersey Devils' system and the way it had, with cold, surgical precision, diced up the Pittsburgh Penguins offense up into tasty cubes of bouillon and dropped them into the soup.
To systematically clip the wings of Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, and Mario Lemieux, repeatedly? Surely there must be some magic in this style, and if the Penguins could employ something like that, with their talent, wouldn't they then be nearly unstoppable?
It was as though you could see the thoughts dancing throughout the owner's mind. Sure, he'd come back for the camaraderie, but the competitive fire still burned bright, and now it began to rage nearly out of control as it sensed the key to another Stanley Cup perhaps within reach.
Near the end of the season and into the playoffs, the Penguins did taste some success with their spin on the Left Wing Lock yet, Mario's justifiable curiosity aside, do these particular Penguins really have what it takes to submit to such a system? If Mario does, in fact, move to left wing, is he prepared to back check, religiously, every night for an entire regular season?
Most elite teams in the league can best be described as dictatorships. The reason? In short, fascists win games. Ken Hitchcock in Dallas, Scotty Bowman anywhere, even the little Napoleon himself, Mike Keenan; they've all attached Stanley Cup championships to their resumes within the past decade. The Devils' Larry Robinson said it straight out after a playoff loss this past season, his team lost because they played "their way" not his. Through gritted teeth he hoped that the defeat had "taught" his players something.
Do those who remain in black and gold honestly have the ability to take such orders? Does Ivan Hlinka have the ability to give these directives in the NHL?
Over the course of the past ten years the Penguins have tried governance in virtually every shape imaginable. There was the player-led coup which led to Bowman's exile and left a sort of military junta in charge. There was the unfettered democracy of the Eddie Johnson administration where everybody seemed to have a vote, and then the parliamentary power split between the executive branch of Kevin Constantine and a Jaromir Jagr-lead congress. Sure, many teams shift through various forms of socialism to autocracy and back again, but the Penguins actually mean it when they say they've 'been there' and 'done that.' Only this time, Mario has returned as the legitimate heir to the throne, and he can do whatever he wants.
What he wants seems to be some sort of Devils/Penguins hybrid. Talk about hell freezing over.
Granted, it's his team and his empire, rightfully and solely, and he has led this team to the only promised land it's ever known. However, before the Penguins run off to do their best imitation of the New Jersey Devils, they would be well-advised to take a long look at their roster to see if such flattery is even possible.
The goal, it seems, of any training camp is two fold. First, to evaluate talent, but second, to evaluate how that talent can best be used. If the Penguins come out of camp with a small, quick, skilled team that is relatively thin on defense, is it the best course of action to slow the game down into something that better resembles the awkward fumblings of two fifteen year-olds in the back seat of an '88 Honda Civic?
Obviously it would be preferable to have a system which runs throughout the organization, one that teaches junior players their roles before they arrive in Pittsburgh headed for the next level. But being that this is not the case, should the Penguins choose to emulate or innovate? Do the remaining talents on the roster have the requisite skill and wherewithal to beat the beasts of the East at their own game? Is this the approach the Penguins' strength suggests? Or should the Penguins try an altogether different tack, one that instead endeavors to exploit the weaknesses of their individual nemeses one by one?
These are the ancillary questions one hopes to answer over the course of the next few weeks. What one begins to wonder, though, is this. As this training camp plays out, will these tryouts prove to be a forum to weigh such options, or was the decision on such a system already made in New Jersey back in May?
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and believes that this year's team is far more balanced coming into camp. Of course, as Brother Karsh can attest to from his own experience at various 'summer camps,' the emotional scars the Penguins will obtain in the next two weeks will be another story altogether.
(If you are looking for Brother Karsh's opinion upon the events that have shaped the country over the last few weeks beyond hockey, they can be found here.)