BOSTON — Perhaps the most telling sign of the impact Jarome Iginla did not make with the Penguins last season is that him playing against them is barely a passing thought going into a third game against the Bruins, with whom he signed in the offseason.
The Penguins never made an attempt to keep Iginla over the summer – probably an equally telling sign of his impact after his heralded arrival last season.
However, allow this to simmer:
The sense here is that Iginla, despite his public comments otherwise, always thought he was coming to the Penguins to play with Sidney Crosby.
That happened for only a few shifts, and even then only because of circumstances that necessitated something different.
Crosby’s preference was always to keep his linemates, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. (Given Iginla’s lack of burst and diminished hands in tight quarters – two attributes that belonged to Dupuis – Crosby was right to have that preference.)
That left Iginla for Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, but with no spot because Neal had established himself as a right winger, which was Iginla’s position. Also, Malkin preferred Neal to his right.
Keeping Crosby and Malkin happy is a necessity for any Penguins coach. They are, after all, the only players to which ownership and management has publicly attached “franchise” tags. They also have huge salaries, individual hardware and their names on the Stanley Cup.
Coach Dan Bylsma knew Iginla needed to play as a top-six forward because Iginla was NEVER going to be a content third-liner given his previous accomplishments and standing in the hockey world. Also, despite the criticism Bylsma received for playing Iginla on the off wing, imagine the uproar playing Iginla on a third line – not with either of the two superstar centers – would have created.
Something else to consider regarding Bylsma’s ultimate decision with Iginla: Crosby, with Kunitz and Dupuis, was chasing a second scoring title and MVP in his first healthy season in three years – and those three had formed the top scoring line in hockey; Malkin, with Neal as his right winger, had just won a first MVP and second scoring title, and those two were coming off first-team All-Star campaigns. Disrupting those dynamics did not make a lot of sense.
Alas, a player with Iginla’s credentials doesn’t go to the third line, not in the real world of egos and personalities. Bylsma prefers the term “manager” to “coach,” and he had to be one with all the star power in the Penguins’ room last season after Iginla’s arrival.
Iginla came to Pittsburgh as more of a folk hero than a significant piece of the puzzle. That was not his fault, but it was how he was perceived. Upon first seeing him in the dressing room last season, several Penguins players seemed in awe of Iginla’s presence. He was spoken of as a great guy, teammate, warrior and player.
I don’t know him as a guy. I don’t know him as a teammate. I did not see the warrior, and as a player he looked to be, at his best, only pretty good.
To be fair, Iginla had never been traded or played for another NHL team. It was, as he has since admitted, an adjustment, and he would have done things differently by being more of himself than somebody seemingly walking on eggshells.
GM Ray Shero said he anticipated Iginla being a difference maker on and off the ice for the Penguins.
Well, that was not going to happen on a third line, either.
So, the only place it could happen was on the left side of Malkin; were everybody involved – Shero, Bylsma, Iginla and Malkin – speaking honestly, they would surely say it probably was never going to happen that way.
Still, Bylsma knew needed to play Iginla in a prime spot on the ice to provide Iginla the clout to make an impact off it. That was especially true because Iginla was walking into an environment where there is a set leadership structure:
Crosby is the captain, the Penguins’ heart.
Malkin, the top alternate, is the soul.
Brooks Orpik, a second alternate, is the conscience.
Kunitz, also a second alternate, is the blood and the guts.
Dupuis – and this, as much as his performance last season, was why removing him from the top line was never an option – had become the cartilage.
Taking Dupuis off the top line, even for Iginla, would have done more than go against Crosby’s wishes. It would have upset a dressing room comprised of core players that have won together, and are extremely protective of one another.
There was never an ideal fit with the Penguins for Iginla.
Bylsma had anticipated that – but, as Shero said, “If you have a chance to get Jarome Iginla, you do it.”
He was right to take the chance.
Despite the obvious challenges Iginla joining the Penguins presented, those might have been overcome had he any time before the playoffs to actually practice as the off-side winger with Malkin and Neal. Malkin, as people tend to forget, was also hurt during the month of March that Crosby missed because of a broken ankle.
During his time on the Penguins when Crosby and Malkin were out, Iginla (as a right winger) found chemistry on a line with Brenden Morrow on the left wing and Jussi Jokinen at center. That line was destined to be broken up when Crosby and Malkin returned. It was, but partly because of the elephant in the Penguins’ room after Iginla arrived.
He was not right for Crosby, and Malkin had a better player to his right in Neal – and Iginla, a future Hall of Famer, a face of Canadian hockey, an icon, was not a third liner for anybody, even the star-studded Penguins.
He was in Pittsburgh to chase a Cup. Everybody tried to make it work, but it was never going to the way everyone envisioned it.
The suspicion here is there was a reason that in his first game against the Penguins as a Bruin he went after Crosby – and that reason wasn’t just because going after Crosby is what the Bruins do.
Iginla was happy to be a Penguin last season, but hardly satisfied with the Penguins. He was letting them, and Crosby, known as much.
Nothing gets the Penguins attention like a player going after Crosby.
There was and is no vocal expression of any lingering resentment between Iginla and his former Penguins teammates, especially Crosby. To the contrary, everybody has offered the right words publicly about last season.
Those words just ring a bit hollow if you pay closer attention.
All of this will be a story line if the Penguins and Bruins play again in the postseason, but the way things are going for the 36-year-old Iginla (5 goals, 15 points in 28 games) it is fair to wonder if he will matter by then.
>> The Penguins’ last loss was here.
If the next one is not, the winning could go on for a while.
Look, the Penguins are not a perfect club. Certainly, they are a club battling some serious injury problems; that was true before losing Malkin and Dupuis this week. (More on that later from the reporting of Josh Yohe, who was back in Pittsburgh with the club.)
However, the Penguins have dealt with worse injury situations during the Bylsma era – uh, January-May in 2011 stands out – and one thing has been consistent.
They stack wins, too.
Bylsma has steered the Penguins to winning streaks of 15, 11 and 12 in each of the last three seasons.
Two of those essentially wrapped up playoff berths and guaranteed home-ice advantage in at least Round 1. The 15-gamer last season basically locked up the top seed in the East.
The Penguins have won five consecutive games.
They face the Bruins, arguably their top competitor in the conference, at TD Garden on Saturday night.
Malkin, second only to Crosby in scoring, will not play. Dupuis might not. Top-four defensemen Rob Scuderi and Paul Martin are out, as they have been. The bottom six forwards that were comprised of three AHL regulars just lost one in Andrew Ebbett, so Harry Zolnierczyk has been recalled.
Yes, the Penguins still have Crosby, Kunitz and Neal, and Orpik and Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury – but the Bruins should feel good about themselves on Saturday night.
Of course, the San Jose Sharks felt good about themselves on Thursday night, and without Malkin (and Dupuis in the second half), the Penguins won, 5-1.
A look at the Penguins’ scheduled after Saturday night:
Columbus (Monday, at home), New Jersey (Friday, at home), Detroit (next Saturday, on the road), Toronto (next Monday, at home).
The Red Wings are without Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The Blue Jackets are without Sergei Bobrovsky. The Devils are without the advantageous lull of playing in front of empty seats in Newark, N.J.
So, there’s the Maple Leafs, a stylistic-problem for the Penguins, but also the team that failed to register a shot after the second period in their last trip to Pittsburgh.
The point – long and winding – is that the Bruins might be all that stands between the Penguins, banged up as they may be, and another winning streak of double digits.
The Penguins have played more games than the nearest Metropolitan Division competition, but they still held an 11-point lead as of Friday. After facing Boston on Saturday, the Penguins finish December with only 4 of 11 games against opponents at .500 or above.
So, there is all that to think about as the snow falls back home.
>> Be smart. Be safe. Stay in.
>> Yohe’s report from Friday’s practice: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5207970-74/penguins-injury-malkin#axzz2mLC4c0mb
>> Columnist Dejan Kovacevic touches on some Penguins topics in his weekly chat: http://triblive.com/sports/dejankovacevic/dejancolumns/5208551-74/dejan-kovacevic-season#axzz2mLC4c0mb
>> If you’re done digging back home, take a stop by my pop’s Dairy Queen in Mt. Lebanon (Banksville Road) on Saturday. It is customer appreciate day from 12-5, and ice cream is half off.
(If you think that was shameless, wait until you see an upcoming Trib house ad with me and a scarf. Yep, and gulp.)
>> And, about those smiling faces to the top right of this page…
Be EXCELLENT to each other,