It's tough not to look at how far the Pittsburgh Penguins have fallen in the past few months without a little bit of wide-eyed wonder. It may have actually started seasons ago, but the team seems to have bottomed out this year and while their play may be shocking, it leaves precious little to be awestruck about.
Awe generally connotes something impressive, positive, even reverential, but none of that applies much to the Penguins this season. Certainly not when cast against the remarkable free-fall in the standings and the body-blow selling off of Alexei Kovalev.
However, before you buy into the jokes you'll hear about how bad these Penguins are, remember that it could be worse. In fact, for the Penguins it has been worse, much worse.
The Penguins will finish this season with at least 26 wins and 63 points. That's bad (it could end up the worst record in the league this season), but it will still pale in comparison to the three year span the Penguins turned in from 1982 to 1985. During these stellar seasons Pittsburgh couldn't average twenty wins a year and only totaled over 50 points once.
In other words, what you witnessed this year is not the end of the world. It's not even close.
Hard as it might be to fathom, there were even some bright spots this season. Seriously, there were, and as the season closes out this week, maybe it's better to focus on them as opposed how many times the Penguins have been shut out this year (ten so far, but who's counting).
Despite the best attempts of some to christen him 'Floppy' for his style, The Salmon has really proved something during this train-wreck of a season. Who knows if he's ready to be a number one goalie on a decent team (it's a lot easier to succeed when nobody expects you to win), but even if he's not, Caron seems to be well on his way to becoming a starting goalie in the NHL. No one knew that before this season, perhaps not even Caron himself, and though he's been cast as the little tin duck in the carnival game that is the Penguins' putrid defense, Caron's play and attitude have really stood out as a bright spot this year.
Another good thing. For the first time since Morozov started seeing regular shifts with the Penguins, fans and teammates cannot question why Morozov didn't contribute more this season. Where were the points? What was he doing with all that potential? Why, he was sitting in the training room nursing himself back to health. Riddle solved.
You have to admire Rick Kehoe. Not for his organizational loyaltywhich has been lauded here beforebut for his ability to survive. What other coach in the league could get through not one, not two, but three ten game losing streaks in less than two seasons without a scratch? Especially with his penchant for being thoroughly out-coached, Kehoe's continued presence behind the bench has got to be commended if only because he's becoming harder to remove from power than Castro from Cuba.
Everybody said that losing Jagr would help Hrdina. Forever the willing participant in a damaging codependent relationship, never had Hrdina been given room to roam on his own. But once free from Jagr's spell, Honza was all set to shine for Pittsburgh, right?
Well, as it turned out, Le Beak wasn't exactly c'est chic after all and he simply replaced his need for Jagr with a need for Marioor anybody else who would take the responsibility of finishing the play off his hands. So now he's a Coyote, which is a good thing because, in Phoenix, worrying about why your third line center can't find the back of the net is hardly a priority when compared to things like working air conditioning and a good tee time.
Maybe it's best not to point out the flashes of good hockey we've seen from him, lest Surovy suffer from the same malady that seems to have befallen Milan Kraft, Toby Petersen, and Kris Beech to name a few. Maybe it's better off simply suggesting we keep an eye on him when camp opens up in the fall.
Guillaume Lefebvre , Ramzi Abid, and Dick Tarnstrom
All right, forget talent for a moment, nicknames are back in Pittsburgh with a vengeance. First, who cares if Guillaume Lefebvre the hockey player doesn't even remotely resemble Robert Guillaume the actor, any time you can bring back the television masterpiece that was the sit-com 'Benson,' you're serving the greater good of humanity.
Next you've got 'Bam Bam,' who should let the team start liberally peppering the jumbotron with outtakes from 'The Flintstones.' Finally, some of us were really starting to worry. And Tarnstrom? Well, he may not be the power play quarterback everybody hoped for, but if the public can once again use the monikers 'Slick Dick' and 'Tricky Dick' in a positive light, maybe America has put Watergate in the past once and for all. The Pittsburgh Penguins: healing the country one Dick Tarnstrom at a time.
Although just a part of a defense whose success rate could rival that 'Star Wars' missile defense shield, Hans has really had an impact this year. Not since the on-ice stylings of Neil Wilkenson have the Penguins been privy to such defensive ineptitude. The good thing here is that a lot of Penguin fans (read: this column) were desperately seeking a whipping boy after Fritz/Helmut/Robert Lang left and Mike Wilson was tossed off the Igloo ice. Thankfully, Hans really stepped up to fill that void this season. His consistently poor play and perplexing decision making capability make you wonder less about the organization's commitment to coaching and more about their stance on recreational pharmaceuticals. Honestly, Jonsson couldn't have been sober when he took some of those penalties. Not a chance. Thanks, Hans.
Ville Nieminen is fantastic for one reason. He's a reminder that if speaking up about the Penguins' poor work ethic doesn't get you benched or traded, stringing together a couple of good games in a row just might. The message, thought it probably could use some tweaking, seems obvious: don't watch what you say, watch how you play. If only some of us had known that in college.
The Skating Penguin
Even though you knew it was coming, it's still hard not to like seeing the Skating Penguin (who probably should have a name, don't you think?) back at center ice. Yes, the hummingbird had its fans, and maybe the Skating Penguin brings back memories of the '80s when the Penguins were almost as hard to watch as they are right now. But this was the logo that skated around the ice while Mario Lemieux hoisted the Penguins' back to back Stanley Cup Championships. That plus a gold lamé that would make Liberace proud has got to count for something in this town.
The Iceburgh bobblehead
Speaking of local icons, now an Iceburgh has a bobblehead. How can that be a bad thing?
It wasn't just ESPN that had a soft spot for Moran, so too did many Penguin fans. He was a Penguin for a long time, did everything the team asked, and should probably be considered the consummate Penguin role player. If Moran had to leave Pittsburgh at least he was sent somewhere he wanted to go. Players can be replaced, but good people are harder to come by, and for everybody who appreciated a guy who had a great work ethic, loved to play the game, and loved the town of Pittsburgh, it was good to see someone become an ex-Penguin and still leave the Penguin faithful smiling.
In case anybody wondered, as bad as the Penguins have been this year, they're still not the New York Rangers. With the highest payroll in the league, the scourge of fiscal sanity and anathema to what real hockey is about, the New York Strangers (as even their hometown papers now call them), will also likely finish on the outside of the playoffs looking inagain. If they weren't a large part of hockey's most pressing problems, financial stability and competitive balance, the Rangers' quest to buy their way past the velvet rope would be the funniest show on Broadway.
But better than that, if New York finishes six or less points out of the hunt they can look right down the schedule and fault the three wins Pittsburgh took from them this season. The Rangers on the golf course in April. You can be forgiven if your misery loves their company.
Last but not least, if you remember nothing about the team's performance this year remember this. When he was healthy and surrounded by even marginal talent, Mario was still basically a two points-per-game player at 37 years old. In spite of all the turmoil and turnover this season, Mario will have played in less than 70 games, but will still probably finish the season in the top ten league-wide in scoring.
In other words, yes, he's still that good and, no, that doesn't mean he should finish career like the Grey One by missing the playoffs in New York with the Rangers. He can do that just as easily in a town that loves him, namely the one he's been loyal to his whole career.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and believes that there's a silver lining in every Penguin season, it's just that sometimes it just takes you more than one six pack to find it.