The playoffs. You've been so engrossed in the action and the storylines that you almost forgot this column exists in the off-season. For shame.
Of course, the kidding is done out of love. Assuredly you're watching these playoffs with a keen eye while still keeping this column well within your peripheral vision. Hey, you can multi-task, it's why you get the big bucks. Also, as a dedicated fan, you are doubtlessly taking in all the post-season proceedings with pen and pad in hand, assiduously transcribing thoughts which will improve your Pittsburgh Penguins as they return to the ice a few months hence.
Or is that just what certain Internet columnists are for?
The good news is that we're only through round one and there are already a solid handful of lessons for the Penguins to look at as they build toward contention next season. To review, the following.
Taught by: The Ottawa Senators
The lesson: Defenseman Chris Phillips is good.
Somebody's making these one goal games stand up, and it's tough to believe it's all the work of Patrick Lalime, good as he's been. True, the Senators caught the Flyers at exactly the right time (April), but Ottawa's top defenseman have played particularly strong in the playoffs with Phillips being perhaps the strongest of them all.
If that Phillips-for-Robert-Lang deal is still available in any way, it should be explored as soon as the season ends. The Penguins are still deep at center and Phillips would immediately become a top defenseman in Pittsburgh. Better still, he's young, but should have enough NHL experience to help the Penguins' young crop of blueliners come into their own. This assumes the Penguins re-sign Robert Lang, but that won't be a problem, now will it, Craig Patrick?
Taught by: The New Jersey Devils
The lesson: Good coaches adjust.
Kevin Constantine got a lot out of a young, under-talented Penguin team once upon a time. Unfortunately, even his love of LetsGoPens.com couldn't stop Constantine's Devils from finishing their current campaign with a thud. With a talented bunch intimately familiar with getting past the Carolina Hurricanes, it's still New Jersey who will be sitting home for round two of the playoffs after being beaten at a game the Devils made famous. Hurricanes' Head Coach Paul Maurice made all the right moves in this series, and they looked all the better when Constantine left each of them virtually unanswered.
Fitting a team to your system is fine, if you're playing not to set a franchise record for losses, or if you have the talent of say, the Minnesota Wild. But if you're trying to win the Stanley Cup, you need to act as much as react and Constantine appeared to do neither.
The Penguin coaching staff should be watching the playoffs (if they're not, they should be fired) and adjustments weren't their strong suit during the regular season. That's fine, but in the playoffs adjustments happen or your team goes home. It's that simple.
Taught by: The Montreal Canadiens and the Colorado Avalanche
The lesson: Complement, not compliment.
Montreal, minus Saku Koivu for the entire season as he battled stomach cancer, beats the Eastern Conference top seed in six games. Colorado struggles for goals down the stretch of the regular season only to get Peter Forsberg back in the lineup and suddenly look a lot like the Stanley Cup Champions they are.
The Penguins have tried this the other way. They've hemmed and hawed, they've waited and bided their time, counting the minutes and scheduling their existence around Mario Lemieux and his ability to be on the ice and bring some cohesion with him. It doesn't work. Mario literally is the team in many ways, but he cannot be the figurative team any longer. He must complement them, not wait for them to do little more than compliment him.
This team has to be able to get to the playoffs without Mario playing a single day in the lineup. Create that team, then add Mario for fifty to sixty regular season games plus the post-season and Pittsburgh can honestly talk about the Stanley Cup again. Continue to preface the idea of consistency and team unity on Mario being available from day to day and the Penguins can continue to analyze the playoffs from the outside on an annual basis.
Taught by: The Philadelphia Flyers
The lesson: Be on the same page.
It's so obvious, but so many teams have such a problem mastering it and for a team that went winless in their last ten games of the season, it can't bear repeating too often.
The Flyers fell apart from top to bottom and from side to side. No one was beyond criticism, everybody was quick to criticize, and even worse, it went on during the series. This starts from the front office and permeates the entire franchise. Without a consistent organizational philosophy and a general confidence in the team that takes the ice, you can kiss your chances of winning the Stanley Cup goodbye.
The Flyers had as much, if not the most, talent of any team in the Eastern Conference on its roster. Then they went out and set a record for fewest goals scored in a playoff series. Questions?
Taught by: The Montreal Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks
The lesson: Don't just buy a team that wins, build a team for the fans and the wins will follow.
In Vancouver, the Canucks were in the process of losing their fourth straight game to the Red Wings and being bounced from the playoffs in the first round, again, yet Canuck fans stood to their feet and applauded for a solid five to ten minutes at the end of the game. They weren't applauding the loss, they were applauding the effort Vancouver put forth during the playoff series and during the final month of the regular season when they were arguably the best team in the league as they fought off Edmonton and Dallas just to get into the post-season.
Canuck fans, while assuredly wanting a winner, responded to the heart their team displayed and will be chomping at the bit waiting for next season. Other cities, with better teams, cannot say the same.
In Montreal, maybe it was their three year absence from the playoffs, but Canadiens' fans are falling all over themselves for their club again and it doesn't appear to be simply because they're winning. Montreal has eighteen home grown players on their roster, eleven from their own province of Quebec, and nobody is going to accuse this team of trying to buy the Cup. Is it a coincidence that this city takes to them the way they do?
Towns respond to certain kinds of teams and certain kinds of styles. The Canucks and Canadiens have shown you can build for the fans and for the playoffs at the same time. That's something to think about if you're a team who's going to eventually lose the biggest draw Pittsburgh's had in over a decade.
The lessons from the playoffs abound and this is just round one. Pittsburgh, are you listening?
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and when he's not under state or federal indictment during the off-season.