There are a lot of virtues that are distinctly American. Taking a step back is not one of them. In this country, reflection is associated mostly with mirrors and retrospect generally reserved for the History Channel.
But sometimes taking a step back is exactly what the doctor ordered, and sometimes even if you aren't interested, fate leaves you no choice.
Certainly, after the Pittsburgh Penguins' run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, struggling to reach the playoffs didn't appear to be on the agenda this season. Unfortunately, injuries and poor play have conspired to put the playoffs beyond reach for the first time in eleven seasons in Pittsburgh.
Don't be mislead, the Penguins are not going to the playoffs this year. Sadly, it happens. Although, if for the rest of the franchise's existence the team only happens to miss the playoffs once a decade, Penguin fans should consider themselves blessed.
The only reason the Penguins can even pretend they have a shot at the post-season this year is because of the rampant mediocrity in the Eastern Conference. If the Penguins, New York Rangers, or Washington Capitals were to reach the playoffs this season, the NHL would be wise to draft a formal apology to hockey fans everywhere, groveling for forgiveness because teams this bad might actually reach the post-season.
But just because the Penguins' year will end in another two weeks doesn't mean the Pittsburgh faithful should lose hope. Rather, these last few games, if used properly, could jump-start a successful 2002-2003 campaign long before it begins.
The past six months have sketched out exactly what the Penguins' problems are, and so long as the organization has no objections, the solutions might begin arriving as soon as this weekend.
Even considering all the injuries, this season should still, finally put out to pasture the old Penguin way of doing things. No longer can this team even pretend that it's deep enough or talented enough to get by without going all out every game. Before you can attack the playoffs, you have to make the playoffs, and that's not going to happen again until the Penguins learn to play hard all season long. Yes, boys, that includes the home games too.
But more than effort, this season demonstrated that the Penguins lack leadership, skill along the blueline, offensive cohesion, and confidence.
The good news is, none of these conditions need be fatal.
Defensively, some solutions seem to have arrived at the trade deadline. If Jamie Pushor and Rick Berry can be re-signed this off-season, the defense may not suddenly become formidable, but it shouldn't be as painfully porous as it was this year.
Speaking of re-signing, securing Robert Lang a new deal has now become essential. Even if he has to be signed to a contract the Penguins can't exactly afford (e.g., three years, $13.5 million) the Penguins should not hesitate to put pen to paper, if only so Lang can then be traded. Such a price tag might be beyond the Penguins' budget, but it would make Lang an affordable second-line insurance policy for a team with big ticket talent. That commands value, value a cash-poor team like Pittsburgh needs badly.
As for leadership, this team has needed a true leader ever since Ron Francis shuffled off to Raleigh-Durham. This season, Mario Lemieux demonstrated that he wants simply to be part of this team, not it's leader, and Alexei Kovalev seems to thrive in the same role. This is fine, but someone needs to fill the gaping void that currently exists on the ice and though the remaining games are few, they should be enough to see if any of the new blood might be interested in making this team their own.
Should such a leader not emerge, the long off-season will be more than enough time to consider what it would take to bring in just such a personality, be he player or coach.
Just because Rick Kehoe has been re-signed doesn't mean he couldn't be reassigned as well. This season Kehoe has not only been consistently out-coached, but he's proven himself to be the kind of steward players don't seem ready to go to war for. Add to this the fact that, for two straight years now, the team has received prospects from the minors who always seem to need more seasoning and perhaps Kehoe would be more suited to teaching the Baby Penguins of the AHL instead of struggling with the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL.
At the very least, the youngsters would know the system by the time they got to the big show. That is, assuming there is an organizational system.
Who would replace Kehoe? The name Ted Nolan comes to mind. Here's someone who's known to get the most out of a small market squad and someone willing to take the heat for his team. He's also someone who has to be willing to do the job for the price of an NHL fourth line player. If he ever wants to coach in the NHL again, Nolan has to be ready to make some sacrifices and the Penguins have long proven their knack for reclaiming lost talent.
It's time to get resourceful, and if the Penguins can't afford to bring in a leader on the ice, maybe it's time they explore ways to bring in one behind the bench.
This season has offered up many things about this team. Who its heart is, where its collective head is at, and what direction it seems to be pointed. It's also been perhaps the most affordable wake-up call the Penguins could have ever received, just so long as it's not brushed aside with a quick slap to the snooze button.
The trading of Jaromir Jagr before the season was the precursor to what now appears to be the total reconstruction of the Penguins' style. Their attitude, their approach, it's all dangerously close to the complete overhaul this team has desperately needed for years. Change is the only thing that can return the Penguins to the upper-echelon of the league and it finally seems to be sinking in.
History says that the last time the Penguins missed the playoffs they came back to win two consecutive Stanley Cups. If this team isn't afraid to take a long look in the mirror, two more Stanley Cups could very well be just the beginning.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and believes it's time for the Penguins to take off the training-wheels and make the changes to this team that they've been afraid to make for years. What do they have to lose?