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A COOL CONSTANT STUTTER FROM PINK SWOLLEN TONGUES: the pittsburgh penguins are not the dynasty you expected them to be

hey, ya smell that?  it’s the sweet smell of blood in the water.

This is kind of a last gasp, everyone hopes, for whatever it is the Pens have been doing since roughly 2010.  Let’s just get all the information out and lay it on the table.  Now is as good a time as any, while the memories are still fresh and the mornings are still chilly.  There will be moments this summer, perhaps in late August especially, when you can’t drag yourself out of bed, and then you realize you’re wearing a threadbare Brooks Orpik t-shirt that smells like a sweaty asscrack, and then you start sobbing softly as the words “drop the puck” drift, almost inaudibly, from your parched lips.  The sobs will begin to wrack your body, and you won’t have time to think about things like this.

Hey beware, wall of text below.

2009-2010 season, Penguins fall in 7 games to Montreal in the Eastern Conference semifinals, “Halak’d” becomes a synonym for facial splooging

 We can all safely say that even after this playoff loss, we were probably proud of the way the Penguins played.  Garden variety frustrating series and a hot goaltender who just didn’t crack at the right time.  Lady Mellon’s last stand was one of the last moments in this franchise that we can stay that we were proud of.  Zoë chainsmoked on the Mellon lawn (and she doesn’t smoke) and yelled at assholes in Crosby jerseys who were walking off the lawn with like five minutes left.

It was that kind of pride that kept our family together during the beginning of the dark days.

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This was probably the last time as a fan that you felt good about a playoff loss.  Fought hard, didn’t make it, can’t win it every year.  You’re not supposed to win it every year.

However, we had all had the seeds sown during the post-lockout era that Crosby and Malkin would basically create a dynasty akin to the Red Wings, and the epic rise from 2007 to 2008 to 2009 seemed to confirm the hypothesis.  Unfortunately, everyone forgot what made the modern era Red Wings a success.  It wasn’t star power, certainly, but more like general management and depth drafting so successful that it could basically be considered a cult at this point.  Ken Holland is a monster.  The Red Wings haven’t missed the playoffs since 1990.  They don’t always make it past the first round, but they don’t look like idiots getting out of it either.  We hate to talk about intangibles like “culture” these days because we’re realizing in our old age that buzzwords like “culture” and “narrative” are basically astute defense mechanisms for avoiding negative press–it’s why the fancy stats people are getting crucified by idiots on the Internet, because “narrative” is easy and fun and stats seem to threaten it in ways that people who never got off of LiveJournal don’t seem to be capable of comprehending.  So we hear a lot about “bad culture” in organizations, but only when it’s a scandal–and we hear about “good culture” when the national media wants to lodge a dick firmly in your mouth for sucking.  But you don’t hear basic statements about human demeanor or behavior to back up these claims about “culture.”

Some facts for you: Ken Holland knows how to manipulate and work the draft to get players who fit his organization perhaps better than any other GM in the league, perhaps better than any GM in league history.  Deep draft picks that stick with the organization and turn into key pieces on championship teams are basically his bread and butter.  Refer to this list and sort by games played (which refers to the amount of NHL games they played in their careers–so far if the player is still active).  Note the late round picks since the mid-90′s.  Everyone tells you that Datsyuk and Zetterberg were late round picks like it’s some kind of miracle, but it’s not just dumb luck that Holland grabbed his franchise players in the 6th and 7th rounds of consecutive draft years in the dog days of the late 90′s.  They had to buy into the organization and they had to be developed, just like everyone else.  Holland assumed his post in 1997, sandwiched between two consecutive Stanley Cup wins.  Much of that team was built up by Jim Devellano, Scotty fucking Bowman, and Bryan Murray–but Ken Holland made no attempt to take the foot off the gas with organizational drafting and fortitude.  He carefully crafted a team that would go on to win three more Stanley Cups in the next ten years.  It may be a little bit of dumb luck that the Red Wings have had such amazing organizational continuity–but make no mistake, this is how they became what they were, and probably what they will continue to be as long as Ken Holland is breathing.  Their core is aging and they have had ***a lot*** of injury problems, but they’re still kicking pretty proudly, even though they haven’t been past the second round since losing the Cup to the Penguins.

Here’s an intangible for you as well: they haven’t acted like total jerks about their early playoff exits.  And many of Holland’s late round steals are still still making impacts at every roster position and every roster level.  No one is losing their minds that the Red Wings need to rebuild because they have a history of a.) losing with dignity and b.) actually drafting players, habitually, who are improving the organization’s depth in a tangible way, even though they have frequently traded away high draft picks in order to get proven talent.  And, they’re adjusting to current trends:

The Wings have undergone a change in philosophy after years of using first-round picks to trade for established NHL players. The 2012 first-round pick that was used to bring in defenseman Kyle Quincey at the trade deadline marked the 10th time since 1997 the Wings didn’t have a first-round pick. Now there’s more of an emphasis on development from within — which is also why the meetings have been set up to coincide with the Grand Rapids Griffins’ home playoff schedule. - Helene St. James, Detroit Free Press

Realizing that they need help sooner rather than later to get some younger, more offensively minded legs on the ice around Zetterberg and Datsyuk as they grow older is an insanely astute reaction to the injury troubles of the last several years.  There may be a lull, but the Red Wings are going to be fine.

It helps that Mike Babcock is a massive swinging dick and you wouldn’t want to cross him, even during a game of poker.  His players respect the hell out of him.  Coaching, general management.  You need both of these things first before you can start building a dynasty.  The Pens had their coach, so they thought, who came in at an emotionally vulnerable moment for the entire Penguins organization and somehow got the boys thinking again.  And they had their GM, who was basically making sly trades and throwing his balls around the room on a regular basis.  Shero continues to be shrewd at key moments to get players that the Penguins need at just the right time.  Still, without solid drafting, it has really just become a patchwork quilt.  It’s been hit and miss.  You talk to other fans of other teams around the league and you realize that their entire forward roster hasn’t been utterly hit or miss for the last six years.  It’s not how it works.  And for some reason Shero excels at acquiring and drafting young d-men.  No idea what the player development department is doing with them sometimes, but they do in fact exist.  Maatta and Despres are both unbelievably impressive at their respective ages, Bortuzzo is nasty in the good way, etc. etc. etc.

But after the Penguins lost in 2010, and everything still seemed like it was getting better, Pens fans still hadn’t seen the warning signs–the warning signs that Craig Patrick’s draft picks weren’t going to live forever.  The Pensblog broke down Shero’s inability to draft at the forward position and it’s probably the best research on the Penguins in the last decade, if you want to talk about this in an academic sense.  If you became a Penguins fan in the years bookending the Cup run on either side and didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the rest of the league, you’d be excused for thinking that draft picks really aren’t expected to do much for an organization.  Seriously.  My deep dark secret is that I had never seen an NHL game or any professional sporting event (aside from a disastrous trip to a Steelers game as a child) until 2007 and it took me a couple years of watching the draft to catch on to Shero’s game.  But it’s there.  Just read it.

Moving on. . .

2010-2011 season, Pens fall in 7 games to Tampa Bay, but everyone was practically just relieved that it was over

If any season was the Penguins’ lost season, which could be identified as the year the music not only died but spontaneously combusted on the Parkway East during rush hour, this would be it.  No one talks about this year, really.  It feels distant and dangerous, like your own personal war stories from British East Africa.  This was the year of horrifying injuries, but the Penguins played out of their minds towards the end of the season despite missing Crosby and Malkin.  Here’s a sample roster:

The Penguins skated this roster for a 4-2 win over the Devils, the day before the rematch on the Island (you know the one).  Weird that we’d take this over some of the ones we had this season.

Kovalev though.  WOOF.  Starting forward line of Dupuis-Talbot-Kovalev.  GOOD LORD.

The Penguins finished 4th in the east and home ice felt like a gift.  The Lightning basically unraveled whatever it was that Dan Bylsma had going with his skeleton crew in March and April.  Crosby and Malkin were not available to the Penguins during the playoffs (his Winter Classic head injury had just happened).  Still, they jumped out to a 3-1 lead over Tampa.  In Game 5, the Penguins surrendered 8 goals to the Lightning, and things very quickly got grim.

No one reads the NHL.com recaps of anything, probably, but these paragraphs make us cringe:

Was this bad loss a mere glitch, or one of those ‘Uh, oh’ moments in which everything about a series suddenly switches?

“It’s not something we’ve had a lot of success in,” Bylsma said. “It’s difficult to close a team out. They’re playing to the last breath.”

Apparently, not even an admonishment by Bylsma’s son, Bryan, that it was time to clinch a series at home could motivate the Penguins to finish off a series in front of their fans. – Alan Robinson, NHL.com

Christ.  Bylsma brought his son into the locker room to talk to the team?  Did this actually happen?  Who the fuck does that?

Basically there were red flags all over this series which everyone probably ignored because after losing Sid and Gene long-term, it seemed like a gift that the Pens had gotten that 4 seed.  But the spider eggs had been lain, just under the flesh.  The Pens obviously lost the series.  Game 7 ended 1-0 Tampa.  A single second period goal by Sean Bergenheim was enough to kill the giant.

But, everyone is basically still shellshocked because Crosby was cut down in what was proving to be a career year.  No one was going to touch the Pens’ playoff loss here.  The series sent the entire fanbase into some kind of psychosis.  Proof: we wrote the series recaps as short plays and this one is about ponies being offered to Tyler Kennedy as some kind of drug scheme.

Basically, this year is a testament to the strength of Dan Bylsma’s coaching, if nothing else.  He knows how to scrape wins out of the regular season with some strong coffee dregs, but the playoffs are kind of a different story, especially when your organizational culture is such a mess.  See:

2011-2012 season, DEATH MARCH ACROSS THE SCHUYLKILL

Another year, another fourth place finish.  Crosby didn’t play until February, immediately going on a tear and sending the Penguins on a long win streak.  Malkin won the Hart.  Hopes were really high towards the end of the season that This Could Be The Year.  It was probably the best roster the Pens had shown up with in the playoffs since 09, or at least that’s how we remember it.

And then the Pens went down 3-0 to the Flyers.  They gave up 8 goals in two of those games after a relatively tame 4-3 loss in the first game.  No one knew it was going to go so badly.  Then, the Penguins answered with a 10-3 win in Game 4.  I don’t think anyone expected that to happen.  Jordan Staal had a hat trick and Malkin scored twice.  Giroux was still tearing it up.  This is where the “best player in the world” jokes came from.

Pens won the next game 3-2 and we felt like the comeback was briefly real.  I can’t even find recaps of this shit to represent our mental states on the blog.  I distinctly remember watching some of these games in a locked computer lab at my college on a projector by myself in the dark and rolling around on the floor crying.

At this point, there was no excuse.  Everything just became a haze of violence and stupid emotions.  Why didn’t this team gel when they seemed so lovable?  Sean Conboy’s piece for Pittsburgh Magazine today pretty adequately describes the Penguins image around this time, why the entire NHL hates the Penguins, and why so many Penguins fans are basically simpering people who like cute faces and neat stories.  It’s really all we got from this team.  One intense arc of cinematic beauty from 2007 to summer 2009–but the sequel has been critically panned and rejected by the masses.  We tote out LOTR metaphors a lot on this blog because they tend to describe our feelings better than other metaphors, but the Penguins and LOTR have absolutely nothing in common.  If the post-2009, post-Mellon-Arena, nouveau-country-club Penguins were a movie, they’d be The Two Jakes.  What a shitty movie after Chinatown.  What an embarrassment for everybody.

Destructive behavior can be hard to recognize in the moment.  Everyone pretty much closed their eyes and hoped that next year would be better.

2012-2013 season, Penguins get swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Bruins, but I mean that was just weird, right?

A shaky series with the Islanders that was still entertaining ended in six games, and then the Pens brutalized the Senators, who sucked.  When they drew the Bruins next round, everyone was excited for a matchup between two Eastern heavyweights.  The Pens had finished 1st in the East during the lockout-shortened season.  It all felt fast and easy, kind of like getting overwhelmed in a busy Sephora and realizing you don’t know what you want.  Pens scored two goals all series and we all went home feeling like we’d just been in a long con.

The Pittsburgh Penguins do not know what they want.

Read quotes by the people actually involved.  Look at the pattern of organizational smugness, trying to get something for less than other teams are paying, whether that’s cash value, roster picks, or a cultural experience.  We’ve been saying for a long time that something needs to burn the fuck down before it can rise again–”narrative” might be a bullshit concept to apply to the mercurial reality of professional sports, but there is a certain science, a certain psychology, even, to motivation and enthusiasm.  A positive feedback loop creates happiness and productivity in relationships.  The Penguins do not have that.  It’s not easy to maintain positive feedback loops, but a few teams seem to have them, even when they lose a few years in a row.  No one wins the Stanley Cup every year, but very few teams in the bucket labeled “perennial contenders” seem legitimately pissed about it–and the same goes for their fans.

But, we’ve all been on Tumblr and we’ve all seen the .gifs of Sidney Crosby looking pissed at his coach and disenfranchised with the world around him.  That’s another intangible for your hip pocket.  People aren’t happy, like not even with the general arc of their lives, apparently.  Sidney Crosby’s life is hockey.  deal with it.

THE PENS AREN’T A DYNASTY

they also aren’t in a rebuild, and they also aren’t just staying the course because they have a good group.  They’re basically the biggest promise of the post-lockout NHL gone nuclear, much to the delight of everyone else in the NHL fan community.  That promise is now hollow and unfulfilled, but not because of the one glorious season we did have (and oh it was glorious).  It’s a hollow promise because this is a team identity that spoon feeds you bone marrow until you are full of blood and protein and can climb on the high horse all by yourself–but they never teach you how to ride.

Someone is going to take responsibility for that this summer, God willing.  Basically what we’re saying is, we can’t wait.

This is all coming back to the Pens higher ups now, it seems.  Michel Therrien just coached the Montreal Canadians into the Conference Finals after years in exile.

We’d say there may never be another true dynasty in the NHL, but the Blackhawks are currently making a strong argument.  If they repeat this year we’ll have to analyze their organizational strategy while pissing on ourselves in a bunker.

blow it the fuck up, go pens

and in the meantime, go Ducks, too.

Zoë

About Zoë

from Fayette County, living in Boston, chronically fussy. every Penguins season is like Amundsen vs. Scott in my head.

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