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Kovacevic: Core problem? It’s Penguins’ defense


By DEJAN KOVACEVIC / Trib Total Media


PHILADELPHIA — The eyes of Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were still glazed, their expressions frozen like the Wells Fargo Center scoreboard that told the cold reality — Flyers 5, Penguins 1 — of another early Stanley Cup playoff exit. It was all over these close friends’ faces as they rose together and walked out of the locker room.

Only one stayed behind.

Jordan Staal had barely budged from his corner. His sweat-stained undershirt was still on, skates still unlaced, legs straddled and head back as he stared into space.

For all I know, he’s still there. And he’s still wondering how a team this talented, this tough, this blessed by a rare run of good health, with this core of himself and other elite young players already once christened champions, could have crumbled in six games.

During a brief interview in which Staal’s stare never let up, he told me, “We’ve got some great players in here, but we fell short. It’s disappointing.”

Who would dispute it?

You saw Sidney Crosby outclassed by Claude Giroux.

You saw Evgeni Malkin rubbed out by a 19-year-old.

You saw maybe the worst penalty killing in playoff history, thanks to Dan Bylsma’s inexplicably passive strategy.

You saw a power play that looked more interested in style points than shooting on goaltenders better cast as matadors.

And, of course, you saw Marc-Andre Fleury turn sadly soft as a sequel to his brilliant Game 5.

You saw it, and I’m guessing you cringed to the last handshake.

Bad guys win.

And the Penguins … go where?

The frustration of the fan base, I’m sure, will lead to the usual heat-of-the-moment firebreathing. Some will want Bylsma’s head, though that will go rightly ignored. Some will all-out lose their minds — and short-term memory — and want Malkin gone.

TOP OF COLUMN: Matt Cooke and the Penguins' bench are silenced in Game 6 Sunday. ABOVE: The Flyers' Erik Gustaffson celebrates his long-distance wrister in front of Zbynek Michalek. -- Associated Press photos

The core isn’t the problem.

And, no, it isn’t going anywhere.

Ray Shero’s too smart to trade Malkin, and it says here he’ll find a way to keep Crosby and Staal for the long term. The Crosby and Staal contracts are up after next season, so urgency will build. But I can tell you unequivocally that the Penguins have the desire and means to sign both. It’ll take some cap shuffling, but it’s doable.

I asked Staal, as point-blank as was possible through that stare, if he’d like to stay for years to come.

“I love playing here. I love being a part of this group,” he replied. “We’ll see how the future goes.”

And his view of the core?

“We have a good team. We know that. Hopefully, we can build an even better team next year.”

Sound like Staal’s plotting his exit?

Here’s Malkin on the core topic: “I still think we have a great team. I’d like to get one more shot.”

And James Neal: “No one’s going to blow this up.”

Neal’s right, regarding the core. But for the Penguins and that core to take their best shot, this blue line must be blown up.

And I mean ka-boom!

It’s well past time Shero admits his double-doozy of a mistake July 1, 2010, the day he flushed away $45 million on Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Both are colossal busts, and both have a terrifying three years remaining.

Think it’s telling that the defense settled after Martin was removed from the lineup — whatever the reason — after Game 3?

Think it’s telling that Letang logged a superhuman 31:44 of ice time Sunday?

Letang and Matt Niskanen — admirably battling a bum shoulder — were the Penguins’ only acceptable defensemen. Brooks Orpik was OK but not his usual physical self.

But remember that Letang and Orpik were a fine pairing until they were split at midseason to baby-sit Martin and Michalek. And that Fleury was forced into extra work by those two all year, including early in this series.

The front office still sounds confident that Martin and/or Michalek could be traded, given the industry-wide lack of defensemen. No eating of cash required.

Good. Let’s see it.

This defense needs to get younger, faster, stronger and more skilled. The positive is that the system is loaded with terrific prospects. The negative is that the Penguins’ approach to youngsters is akin to that of vampires and crosses. Shero never should have waited until the playoffs to get promising Simon Despres onto the big club. He should have been here in January, learning the NHL game at the level everyone knew he’d be playing.

I saw this team as the Cup favorite. So did the Vegas bettors who made them a prohibitive 4-to-1 favorite. So did Sports Illustrated and many other outlets.

So did Crosby, at least in faith.

“I think everyone believed we had a team capable of doing that,” he said. “But there are no guarantees.”

None whatsoever.

Grade on all our calls: D.

Same as the Penguins’ priority for the summer.


TOP OF COLUMN: Matt Cooke and the Penguins’ bench are silenced in Game 6 Sunday in Philadelphia. ABOVE RIGHT: The Flyers’ Erik Gustaffson celebrates his long-distance wrister in front of Zbynek Michalek. — Associated Press photos

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