It would seem a simple matter to avoid mentioning a player who has dressed in all of 10 games this calendar year, has scored but two goals, both in a single game against a weak team, and isn’t even on the current road trip.
But it isn’t that simple, so let’s get it out of the way early.
Tell us, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, does all the talk about Sidney Crosby get in the way?
First let his face answer – churning lips, eyes quickly checking to make sure the question isn’t in jest, cheek muscles flexing to buy a little time as he searches for words. And now the mouth:
“I think sometimes there’s a little too much focus on how much our team is having to deal with adversity,” Bylsma says. “There’s a lot of teams around the league having to deal with adversity.”
True enough, but it’s only the team dealing with the only player ever to become the face of all that is right with the NHL, and all that is wrong with the NHL at the same time, the biggest name in lights as well as the biggest name in the darkness that is concussion.
“A lot of time,” Bylsma says, “the focus is on you and not on other people.”
He means, of course, that when the media mention, or even think, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, they see only the player not playing, not the ones playing well enough that, heading into Friday night’s game against the Ottawa Senators, the Crosby-less Penguins (17-10-4) were tied for third overall in the Eastern Conference. The 2009 Stanley Cup champions remain an elite team even without the captain who drove them to that Cup.
“It’s part of the game and part of what you need to be ready to deal with,” Bylsma says. “I think our players have done a good job in that regard.”
It cannot, however, be that simple. The reasons for the Penguins’ strong play, despite the distraction of being constantly reminded that they lack the game’s best player, have many facets, some of which include:
The reincarnation of Evgeni Malkin: The NHL’s former MVP and scoring champion seemed to fade away following the Stanley Cup win in which he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. Last season was virtually a total loss after he underwent major knee surgery. He seemed to be coming along slowly, but then exploded into his old self, now with 29 points in 24 games.
The maturation of Marc-André Fleury: Even as they were chasing the Cup there remained questions about the young goaltender. Today, at 27, he seems in his prime, standing second only to the Detroit Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard with an impressive 15-7-2 record. A strong defence with the likes of Brooks Orpik certainly helps.
The trade for James Neal: Less than a year after his trade from Dallas, the 24-year-old is living up to his early promise with 17 goals and 12 assists for 29 points, tied with Malkin for team scoring lead. “Things are going well,” says the native of Whitby, Ont. “I’m playing with great players. … Malkin is a guy who can find you when you get open.”
The transformation of Matt Cooke: The flip side of the concussion issue must have skated down the frozen road to Damascus, as in 31 games, the King of the Blindside Hit has seven goals, six assists and a jaw-dropping, mere 12 penalty minutes.
The coach: Bylsma is now the gold standard for coaching changes. After replacing Michel Therrien early in 2009, 57 games into the team’s 82-game season, Bylsma took the Penguins to a stunning .800 winning percentage through the remaining 25 games. The team stood 10th when he came in, finished fourth and won the Stanley Cup. Last June he was awarded the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s top coach.
Bylsma came up from the Penguins’ minor-league team in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., meaning there has been a continuity in systems for depth players brought up to compensate for such losses as Crosby and, recently, offensive defenceman Kris Letang, whose 19 points are sorely missed as he, too, recovers from concussion.
Bylsma has modelled himself on the coaches he worked with when he played for the Anaheim Ducks – including Mike Babcock, coach of the Detroit Red Wings, and Paul MacLean, coach of the Senators – and in less than three years has established himself as one of the best in the league.
“He was a student of the game when he played,” MacLean says. “Always asked questions. It’s no big surprise that he’s a coach, and a good coach.”
“He could take a last-place team,” Neal says, “and make it good.”
But here he has taken a good team and made it very good indeed.
Roy MacGregor’s hockey column appears regularly on Tuesdays and Saturdays.