The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the most disappointing team in the NHL every year since they won the cup in the entire eastern conference. The Sharks arguably are worse, but then San Jose never actually won offering up the proof that they could, the Penguins did. Why is the new broom needed?

The problem isn’t lack of talent. Whatever else can be said of Crosby, Letang, and Fleury, they have not covered themselves with glory in the playoffs. When they did win the cup, Malkin was the Conn-Smyth winner, Fleury allowed more goals than any other goaltender in that post season. Crosby now has seventeen post season games with just one goal. In this years post season he generated zero points in six games. Letang was scoreless in ten games. In his case, he is coming back from a stroke and a lot of time off, but since being drafted he’s only crossed 75 games in one regular season. Whatever good Letang may do a team offensively, and that’s undeniable, defensively he leaves room for notable improvement.

If anyone needs explained to them why Marc-Andre Fleury needs to be ousted from the Pittsburgh crease, I really can’t help you. He’s a living blooper reel of post season gaffes. His ability to track the puck in pressure situations in almost non-existent. This years .915 sv% is by far his highest in five post seasons, last year he lost the starting job to a man who hadn’t played in the playoffs in about a decade.

Dan Bylsma has failed to keep this team focused in the playoffs every year since his first full season. Five playoff runs, all ending with him looking befuddled on his way to the handshake line after no visible attempts to camp the troubled waters on his bench in the previous several games. The last two years they’ve gotten through their first rounds not because they deserved to win based on the way they played, but because neither the Islanders nor Blue Jackets possessed any measure of playoff experience. This year with America’s best hockey players on his roster for the Olympics he did nothing. The team failed to medal because he is a one trick pony; put the two best offensive players together and pray. That’s it.

Ray Shero has been hunting a white whale for years. Year in, year out he goes out and looks for “someone to play with Crosby”, he brings someone in, they don’t gel, and that person gets shuffled to Malkin’s line where they normally produce at least at the level they did before arriving there. But the subtext to what Shero has done the past half decade is even more alarming when you realize who most of the players brought in were. Last year it was Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, both former team captains, in the past almost everyone brought in has worn a letter. Why? Whether he is willing to admit it or not, some part of him recognized the lack of leadership at ice level. And yet, he kept doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

For Pittsburgh to improve the changes need to be wholesale; Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma need to be given their walking papers. Sidney Crosby and at least one of Marc-Andre Fleury or Kris Letang need to go as well. Without changing the supposed leadership, and the actual faces of the team you can’t change its direction, mental composition or yearly fate.

October is over, and with the close of the seasons inaugural month we can finally start to get a handle on which teams are for real and which are just pretenders.

Anaheim Ducks: When will they turn one or more of their wealth of goaltenders in future assets or skater to improve them for the playoffs?

Boston Bruins: Which is the real team here, the one that beat both the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks or the one that lost to a severely under-performing New Jersey Devils squad?

Buffalo Sabres: Has the front office identified their first overall pick yet, will it be the right shooting defenseman Aaron Ekblad or savvy center Sam Reinhart?

Calgary Flames: Can’t this team even get tanking right, don’ they know a team that’s tanking isn’t supposed to be tied for 20th after a month?

Carolina Hurricanes: How in the world is it possible to have a team with Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner, Jiri Tlustly, and Ron Hainsey still have the NHL’s 22nd best powerplay?

Chicago Blackhawks: If Joel Quenville’s squad didn’t have the worst penalty kill in the NHL they might be a tear similar to last year’s rampage through the NHL so how can they be so, so bad at the PK and still in the top half of the league for goals against?

Colorado Avalanche: Will the Semyon Varlemov situation affect the chemistry in the room and topple a team that has been a force of nature through the first 30 days?

Columbus Blue Jackets: When will the team figure out they need to either score more or stop more and do so if the want to see the playoffs?

Dallas Stars: Can one of the few rosters in the NHL without a player on injured reserve taking advantage of this window of health to climb the standings?

Detroit Red Wings: Can this team stay in the range of its current 19th in goals for and remain a playoff level team?

Edmonton Oilers: How in all the worlds did this team offend the Hockey Gods so much that they can be on the cusp of 60 goals against while most teams are in the 30’s and no other team has even allowed 50?

Florida Panthers: When Dale Tallon wakes up in the morning is his first question “How in the world can those teams be worse than mine?” or “How is this roster doing so well”?

Los Angeles Kings: Is the entire roster wondering if they didn’t accidentally trade the real Jonathan Quick in the off season for the slob who currently has a .896sv%?

Minnesota Wild: Are any of the Wild’s rivals even mildly concerned that the team holds a playoff spot and haven’t gotten any viable contributions from Dany Heatley, Charlie Coyle, nor had Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom healthy for two straight weeks?

Montreal Canadiens: Is anyone gonna acknowledge the incredible start Carey Price is off to, 12 starts in 15 games and a .932 sv%?

Nashville Predators: When will the answer to the question “What’s holding the Predators back?” not be “lack of scoring”?

New Jersey Devils: So this is what $63,473,577 buys when a general manager looses touch with the NHL, right?

New York Islanders: The lowest cap hit in the NHL and a playoff spot might be what it takes to inspire a hockey edition of Moneyball, huh?

New York Rangers: Ryan Callahan and Rick Nash are on injured reserve and the team has won three in a row for half their wins on the season is a bit eye opening isn’t it?

Ottawa Senators: Daniel Alfredsson’s old team is actually outscoring his new team, it’d be nice for what is now Jason Spezza’s squad if they could stop pucks as well this year wouldn’t it?

Philadelphia Flyers: For the first time in years goaltending isn’t the biggest problem for the Flyers, is that why the whole roster looks so befuddled on the ice?

Phoenix Coyotes: Did anyone expect the Coyotes to be fourth in goals for a month and three days into the the season?

Pittsburgh Penguins: What’s more surprising about the 2013-14 Penguins, the fact that Fleury is playing above his normal zone, or that defenseman Matt Niskanen has a better points per game number than Kris Letang?

San Jose Sharks: Exactly how many of this teams players will be on their nations Olympic roster in Sochi Russia?

Saint Louis Blues: If 18 points in 12 games isn’t surprising enough to get you to take David Backes and crew seriously, does the fact that the team is second in scoring do it for you?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Is it too late to place a healthy bet on this team to make the playoffs and bring in a very nice return?

Toronto Maple Leafs: Now that it is no longer October and Phil Kessel who is off to a 9-9-18 start will inevitably cool off, can the Leafs maintain their lofty perch in the standings?

Vancouver Canucks: With a stat line of 4-6-10 through 16 games Mike Santorelli has to be one of the best NHL players per cap dollar in the league this year right?

Washington CapitalsDo you think if Adam Oates adds fellow former Capital Donald Brashear to his coaching staff he can beat some consistency into this roster?

Winnipeg Jets: Is there any more damning statement that could be made about this team than that they might actually be overachieving since they’re best team statistic is an 11th ranked penalty kill?

The Olympics are growing closer and closer as the NHL season is finally escaping the early season mire. Some teams are still playing at a level that no one predicted, others are about where the consensus pegged them. At this time of year it is easier to get a handle on where players will be in the rankings when it comes time for the NHL to dim the lights and the spotlight turns to a Russian city just north of Georgia on the Black Sea.

Alex Steen

While the Canadian team’s wealth at center is deep enough that they could fill all 12 forward positions with worthy centers, they likely to go for a more balanced approach. This is too bad because it means that Alex Steen who is tied for the NHL goal lead with that other Alex might be left off the final roster. 10 goals in 9 games is a tiny bit of a hot streak. Last year in 40 games he had just 8 goals, in a season that was anything but normal. Don’t be too surprised if the Winnipeg Alex is skating against the Moscow Alex in Sochi.

Ryan Miller

If dictionaries were updated on a weekly basis Websters would have a picture of Ryan Miller, his stats and the Buffalo Sabres record. The American goaltending picture for this year was supposed to be some combination of Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators. The third goalie might as well be an inflatable sheep since it was as likely to see action as whoever was behind those two. In the cold light of reality, Miller is outplaying Quick by such a wide margin it isn’t fair to Miller to compare them.

Let’s take a look:

American born NHL goaltender stats October 27 2013

American born NHL goaltender stats October 27 2013

 

 

And when considering the USA crease, while Quick has won a Stanley Cup, Miller has played in the pressure cooker that is the Olympic tournament and done very, very well.

Mark Giordano

Of the top six Canadian NHL defensemen in scoring which one plays more than 25 minutes a night, has played a season (plus playoffs) for Dynamo Moscow, and also has World Championship experience? If you guessed the Calgary Flames blueliner named Mark Giordano, you’re pretty good at this. Add in 18 blocked shots, and the fact that he plays over three minutes a night short handed and on the powerplay and you’ve got a compelling package. When you consider he’s in the upper echelon of scoring while on a poor team he’s taken over as captain of, you have to work hard to leave him off the roster.

Tomas Hertl

The soon to be 20 year old Czech made the jump from Europe to the NHL on his first attempt, is playing just below a point per game pace. Not may people outside his home nation and the Sharks offices had him on their radar coming into the year. He got off to a phenomenal start, caught some (worthless) criticism for showboating, and has leveled off since. There is still time to pull himself back on track, if he does, there’s a chance he’s sharing the ice with a lot of guys who grew up watching.

Torey Krug

The second year defenseman out of Michigan State is currently leading all American defensemen in goals scored. Three of his four have come on the powerplay helping his Boston Bruins improve enormously in that regard. With six points in ten games, the points pace he’s on is every bit as good as Ryan Suter, particularly when minutes played are factored in. Anyone who’s watched three minutes of Krug’s play should have no concerns about his ability to handle any sized ice sheet.

October 1:

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will get the headlines, but if you want the best game of the night, it isn’t this one. It isn’t The Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, it is the Washington Capitals taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, you’ve got a banner raising, the return of Russian Olympic torchbearer Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, John Carlson, Mikhail Grabovski, and Brooks Laich all ready healthy and ready to go.

The star power on both sides is great, goaltending is about equal. This may be the best game of the week.

October 2:

With just three games on the docket, another easy choice. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers both underwent huge roster turnover since last spring. One was a playoff team and may manage it again, the other needs to get into the playoffs or heads will roll. James Van Riemsdyk and Luke Schenn will faceoff against their old teams, and it least one of roster will sport a different goaltender than the last time these two teams met.

October 3:

This is an almost impossible night of coverage to choose from. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning always put on a good show, and this will be the first night on the ice for the Bolts new captain. The Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings should be a good tilt, the jilted former champions versus the rising power looking to wash away the stain of being pushed out of the playoffs so easily. The Saint Louis Blues and Nashville Predators will square off with what could be two of the best backends in the NHL.  But the game of the night will be the San Jose Sharks and their playoff feast the Vancouver Canucks. The changes in the Canucks lineup and coaching will make the game even more compelling.

October 4:

Friday night will be a smorgasbord of NHL action. The game of the night is easily the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres. These two division rivals will square off with both hoping to be in the top three in the new Atlantic division. With Boston and Montreal to compete with every point, every game, every shift counts and these teams know it. Ottawa was in the mix last year, but new captain Jason Spezza will want to bring the boys to the top of the standings from the starting pistol to the final horn.

October 5:

Saturday’s game of the night is easy: Original 6 action. The Boston Bruins host the Detroit Red Wings. Both the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins were laid low by the Chicago Blackhawks last June. With the Red Wings playing as an eastern conference team for the first time in a generation, both fan bases will have to work overtime to get this rivalry to something with a bit of hate in it. Kronwall and Lucic will provide devastating open ice hits, Bergeron and Datsyuk will be on display as three zone aces, Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Howard will be in the crease making their case for inclusion on their nation’s Olympic rosters for Sochi, and Zdeno Chara and Henrik Zetterberg will be captaining each ship in the first of five regular season battles.

This week Alex Ovechkin will take on the job of Olympic Torchbearer. It isn’t a job they give out randomly, you have to be the best, the best and the best known. You have to exude the essence of your sport. The Alex Ovechkin who fulfilled NHL fans dreams of a more exciting game coming out of the dead puck era was exactly that man. He dominated defenses and gouged goaltenders from day one. That is the man who was selected to be a torchbearer.

For the first five years of his career Alex Ovechkin was the torchbearer, the icon, the beacon of scoring prowess, love of game, and over powering exuberance. You couldn’t go a game without some jaw dropping display of hand eye coordination and athleticism. His goal celebrations were legend. More remarkable was how hard it was to know if he’d scored or a teammate, he just loved goals.

Two season back, he a wall. His goal production dropped twenty goals in just one year. Their were rumors, all sorts of rumors. Some of it was the usual anti-Russisan xenophobia so typical north of the 49th parallel. A closer look at the dip will reveal personal problems off the ice, and injuries to both himself and key pieces of the Washington Capitals offense. About the same time a coach ran out of tricks for motivating teams. A new coach came in, and he wasn’t that good.

This year we’ll see Alex Ovechkin playing under a hall of fame player turned coach. Better still, we’ll see him playing under a coach who respects him and understands offense as well anyone who has ever played the game. Backstrom is healthy. Green is healthy. Laich is healthy too. Grabovski has something to prove. The team is poised for 90+ points and another playoff appearance.

But will we see Alex Ovechkin regain the top rung? In recent years Stamkos among others have grabbed the headlines and bright lights. Can the 28 year old dynamo from Moscow compete with the fresh young (Canadian)  faces? With a healthy team, and a wide open division what is a good benchmark for success? Will 40 goals be good enough for the man who averaged over 53 goals a season his first five years? Does he need to eclipse the 50 goal mark? We know the great 8 will take up the Olympic torch in Greece, what we don’t know is if he can reignite the NHL torch and once more be its frontrunner.

The 2012-13 season had highs, lows and surprising blows. Sidney Crosby jumped out of the gate and pounced on the scoring lead. Then out of no where a puck breaks his jaw and puts him on the shelf. Elder statesmen Craig Adams and Chris Kunitz led the way appearing in all 48 games while Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Paul Martin and Kris Letang all missed extended stretches. When all was said and done, with their backup goaltender turning in better stats, the Penguins were the eastern conference champions when the final regular season game was played.

The playoffs saw the Penguins escape the New York Islanders in the first round, no thanks to Marc-Andre Fluery who allowed 17 goals in 5 games and turned in his second worst playoff performance. Thankfully, there was Tomas Vokoun. In eleven games, and making his first playoff appearance since his long ago days with the Nashville Predators, Vokoun won six games, carrying the team through the second round against a depleted Ottawa Senators squad and holding the fort in what would prove to be Daniel Alfredsson’s last game in a Senators jersey. Against the Boston Bruins, Vokoun was the most blameless of the teams top players as they were swept out.

Of the core components to start last season, all are returning. None of the playoff reinforcements remain, and a mistake that was made in years past was corrected, Rob Scuderi is back in Pittsburgh. The opening five games of the season represent a chance to jump out on top of their division against not very stiff competition. Not one of their first five games is against a team that made the playoffs last year. The only set of back to backs is the last pair of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. All five of their opening games are also in the eastern time zone.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils

Weakest opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 3

Projected points: 7+

There are several big questions looming over the team despite their undeniable collective talent. Will the Sochi Olympics cost the team any players lost to injury or fatigue? How much of a distraction will head coach Dan Bylsma’s Olympic coaching duties distract from his job as behind the bench in Pittsburgh? Will the teams official player leaders develop their leadership to a point where Ray Shero won’t feel the urge to bring in two other teams captains to help right the ship for the playoffs? And of course, when the playoffs start, will the team remember how to play in both ends of the ice? Getting to the playoffs is almost a given, even with two more playoff quality teams in the East is almost a given, but recent playoff failures raise the question of their exact nature of their mental fortitude.