Normally, tax time in Pittsburgh is the cue to restock the community supply of black and gold face-paint in preparation for the NHL's second season. Unfortunately, with the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, it's instead time for Penguin fans to find something else to do with these April days. Spring cleaning, a walk in the park, Primanti's. Yet, while the choices are myriad, for many fans who spend the rest of their calendar year waiting patiently to see the Penguins in the playoffs, it appears the only reasonable thing to do right now is to find somebody to blame.
As most of you probably know, the term 'scapegoat,' while not coined until 1530, dates all the way back to the time of Moses. Yes, the one with the stone tablets and the parting of the sea, that Moses. Anyway, under ancient law, every year a couple of goats would be drafted into duty during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. One of these would become the "chosen" goat and be sacrificed to God while the other was ushered off to see the high priest of the day.
Being that Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the priest would take the second animal, confess all the sins of the people to it, then kick the goat out of town. Like most religious acts, this was more symbolic than anything else, the idea being that if you sent goat packing, it would carry off the sins of the town in the process. Thus, for the paltry price of one goat, every one in town had their transgressions washed away for another twelve months. What a bargain.
Now, aside from the suspect rationale which ends up with the chosen goat getting the axe while the one filled to the brim with sins merely gets a ticket to ride, the 'scapegoat' concept can really appease the soul.
Any single entity, be it an individual, a group, or a goat, is easy to isolate, easy to saddle with blame, and so easy to excise. A scapegoat gives a mob focus and a headline closure, it doesn't take much effort to find and the job doesn't require skilled labor. But in the case of the Penguins this year, is there really a single entity that can be blamed for their train-wreck of a season?
Suppose you blame the players. After all, they were the ones on the ice, it was their deft use of a roll of stamps and a mail drop across town that produced the effort (for lack of a better word) which was in full, gruesome display over the last month of the season. Sure, they were hurt, but even with the injuries, there was a pointlate in the seasonwhere they were still in playoff contention. Then they gave up. It wasn't the coaching staff that quit, right?
Although, speaking of coaching, at the professional level a good coach is usually as much motivator as he is master strategist. Head Coach Rick Kehoe was not only out-coached for a good part of the season, but he can't exactly be accused of getting the most out his players this year. Add to that, when the organization gave Kehoe a vote of confidence near the end of the season, the team's response was, if anything, to get even worse. So maybe the players shouldn't bear the brunt of the blame, maybe Kehoe and his staff are at fault for not getting more out of the team.
On the other hand, announcers didn't call this Penguins' team "minor league" for no reason and Kehoe did have all those injuries preventing any sort of consistency among his lines. In fact, by the end of the season, most of the Penguin players were minor leaguers and second stringers thrust into starring roles. What coach could realistically expect to compete in the NHL with that roster? Where were the reinforcements? That responsibility doesn't fall to Kehoe, he isn't the team's General Manager, that title belongs to Craig Patrick.
Moreover, not only did Patrick stock this roster, but for such a reputed master of the late season deal, the Penguins won exactly one game after the trade deadline passed. Now, that was part of a three month stretch in which the team lost a combined twenty games on their way to a brutal 6-18-3-2 finish, but wouldn't a strong general manager be able to compensate for the injuries his team incurred by bringing in or promoting players who could fill the gaps and stop the bleeding?
Of course, in fairness to Patrick, a team on this tight of a budget doesn't really have much margin for error or injury. Maybe if he had more money, he could have operated from a position of greater power. But with NHL teams so dependent on gate receipts for their money, Patrick would have needed not just a greater turnstile turnout, but probably that new arena the team keeps talking about before he could even think about upping the budget.
But that would mean blaming the fans. The fans couldn't share the blame here, could they? The fans are only responding to what they're given, right?
Yes, but unfortunately the Penguins attendance didn't just finish poorly, it started poorly. This team was three thousand seats short of a sell out by the third game of the season. Even teams owned by the Walt Disney Company aren't officially eliminated from the NHL playoffs by the third game of the season. Were the fans really that turned off before season even started or was the effort they saw once they got there just that bad? And, if the effort was that bad, wouldn't that be the fault of the players?
Or is that the coach's responsibility?
If this has all begun to feel like a dog chasing its tail that's because shoveling out blame is many times just about as productive as speeding around in a small circle.
It feels great to blame someone, and in a culture that feeds on victimization, it's almost a natural reaction when something doesn't go as planned. But that doesn't mean it solves anything.
In this case, everyone's to blame, from top to bottom. The fans yawned because the players seemed bored. The players seemed bored because they had no direction, no leader, and because the coaching staff couldn't convey its vision. But the coaching staff couldn't convey its vision because the organization . . . well, you get the point.
The playoffs are starting and the Penguins' season is over, please feel free to blame whoever you want. Just remember, when you're finished, turn out the lights and kick the goat out of town. This team will deserve a clean slate come October.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and will be spending his summer selling choice plots of swamp land in South Florida. Selection is limited, so don't delay.