New-look Penguins ready for chemistry experiment
PITTSBURGH – Dan Bylsma’s trendy eyeglasses and perfectly tailored suits are part of his understated professional look.
Over the next month, the Pittsburgh Penguins coach might want to consider trading them in for a pair of scientist goggles and a white lab coat as he tries to figure out how to mix together the right elements to lead the franchise to its fourth Stanley Cup.
And make no mistake, anything short of a parade in late June through the “City of Champions” will be considered a disappointment after general manager Ray Shero pulled off his own personal hat trick earlier this week.
Over the span of four days the Penguins acquired forwards Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow along with defenseman Doug Murray without touching the roster that has now ripped off 14 straight victories and counting.
Now Bylsma has to find a way to upgrade something that hardly looks like it needs one.
During a press conference hours after landing Iginla, a six-time All-Star, Bylsma used the word “chemistry” more than 10 times while trying to describe ways to create the elusive ingredient required to make a deep playoff run.
“There’s a clear message, a clear focus of bringing that (team) together,” Bylsma said.
Pittsburgh is hardly the first team to make major roster changes before the trade deadline. Hockey history is littered with franchises that went “all in” to capture a title.
The 1994 New York Rangers brought in Cup-savvy veterans Stephane Matteau, Glenn Anderson, Brian Noonan and Craig MacTavish late in the season, one that ended with the Rangers winning it all for the first time in 54 years.
It helped that the hierarchy in the dressing room was already well established. Captain Mark Messier ran the show and everyone else fell in line. Though Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby and reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin go about their business for the Penguins a little differently than the outspoken Messier, that doesn’t mean there’s any question about who the team turns to when it matters.
Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel got an up-close look during Pittsburgh’s 4-0 romp on Thursday night, a victory that pulled the Penguins within three games of the NHL record for consecutive wins. Crosby collected two assists – including a ridiculous no-look backhand feed to Chris Kuntiz for the game’s first goal – and Malkin scored in his return after missing nine games with an upper-body injury.
“They’re playing with a lot of will and you can see who drives that team,” Noel said. “When that happens you watch that team go.”
Noel, however, was quick to add the Penguins “can be beaten” even though it’s been more than a month since anyone has been able to do it for a full three periods.
Pittsburgh’s biggest enemy – other than the pressure that comes with being anointed the Stanley Cup favorite – may be itself. Crosby knows for every 1994 New York Rangers there’s a team that loaded up and nothing happened.
The Washington Capitals were sailing to the Presidents’ Trophy three years ago when they added four players – namely defensemen Joe Corvo and Milan Jurcina – and were bounced in the first round by Montreal.
The St. Louis Blues sent three players and two draft picks to the Los Angeles Kings in 1996 for Wayne Gretzky. The Great One helped the Blues to the playoffs, but they lost to Detroit in the Western Conference semifinals and Gretzky was out the door for New York less than two months later.
Crosby, who considers himself a bit of a hockey historian, is well aware of the pitfalls that lay ahead.
“I think everyone knows there are a ton of teams that have been (considered the favorite) that haven’t panned out,” Crosby said. “That’s not a team that we want to be.”
In a way, spending most of the final month of the season on the road will help. Leaving Pittsburgh will allow the newcomers to spend extended periods of time off the ice with their more established teammates, hopefully creating the kind of positive energy that can help overcome bumps in the road.
And it’s not like the new guys are anonymous. Iginla and Morrow played with Crosby and Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on Team Canada’s gold-medal winning team in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. In Vancouver the quartet helped carry a nation.
Surely a city can’t be that difficult, right?
“Those guys have been around a long time and know what it takes,” Crosby said.
Shero will let Bylsma do the tinkering, but isn’t concerned about any bruised egos along the way.
“It doesn’t matter who you play with (or) how you play,” Shero said. “Every player that’s here is here for a reason, that’s to try and help us win.”
Bylsma indicated he’ll keep the trio of Crosby, Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis – the highest-scoring line in the league – intact. It’s likely Iginla will play on the second line with Malkin and James Neal while Morrow will be teamed with Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke.
At least, that’s the plan. Bylsma said there will be times depending on the situation Pittsburgh could have Crosby and Iginla play together and that a variety of combinations will pop up.
Regardless of who is in the ice together, the Penguins now have perhaps the most talented roster in the league. It makes them the team to beat, one with a pretty big target on its back.
Pittsburgh has won 11 straight at home heading into Saturday’s game against the New York Islanders, and New York forward John Tavares sounds like he’s speaking for the entire league when asked for his take on the new-look Penguins.
“Obviously, they’re making headlines and they’re really going for it,” Tavares said. “That’s what some teams do this time of year, so we’ll be ready for it.”
Iginla remained in Canada as of Friday afternoon and is unlikely to be in the lineup today … Fleury practiced Friday but Bylsma wouldn’t elaborate on his availability. Fleury suffered a minor upper body injury in a win over Montreal Tuesday and was scratched for Thursday’s game against the Jets … Defenseman Paul Martin did not practice Friday because of an upper-body injury.