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Kovacevic: Why cut Penguins' power supply?

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A limited number of tickets will be sold for a chance to meet Penguins winger James Neal, shown in this file photo in a practice session on Jan. 14, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
By Dejan Kovacevic
Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, 9:54 p.m.
 

The Penguins are a franchise like no other, blessed with 14 individual NHL scoring titles in the past 24 years by four different players. And as such, they've been built on a foundation of treating superstars like superstars.

Keep them happy.

Keep them here.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are infinitely less demanding than predecessors Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but that general thought process remains. And there's nothing wrong with it. It's paid off far more often than not.

So let's start with that context, then, when examining the rather bold power-play revision Dan Bylsma and staff are putting into place at this training camp.

Both stars will work in their preferred spots on the right side, Crosby down by the goal line, Malkin along the half-wall. They'll both also have some license to bounce about the attacking zone.

Crosby is happy.

“I like it,” he told reporters Tuesday at Consol Energy Center. “It's pretty familiar.”

Malkin is happy.

“It is the same,” he said. “I can stay at the right point, shoot. I can go to the net. I can score from both. Sid, too.”

Wonderful.

No, I mean it. Glad they're happy. That really does matter.

But sorry, that's about as far as I get with this configuration that also has 40-goal man James Neal being ushered back to the point, 5-foot-11 Chris Kunitz at the net and ultra-mobile Kris Letang essentially relegated to safeguard duty.

It's a mess. And I'm not saying that because it's clearly looked to be a mess in the first two days it's been practiced but, rather, because there's no solid reason to imagine it will click over the long haul.

Most especially not in the case of Neal.

They teach folks in the business world to always build from your strengths. Well, Neal's contribution last season was the strength of this power play. His 18 goals with the man-advantage were No. 1 in the league, accounting for nearly half of his total.

Want to move him to foreign territory and farther from the net?

The Eastern Conference's goaltenders send their thanks.

The aim, per Bylsma, is to work back-door plays from Crosby to Neal cheating in from the left point, similar to those Crosby once did with Ryan Whitney and Alex Goligoski.

Sounds neat, too. As Malkin noted, Crosby makes that particular pass “best of anybody in hockey.”

But where is evidence that Neal can finish those off?

There's no more difficult shot for any forward than a one-timer from his natural wing. You're essentially shoving the puck forward. Neal is a left-handed shot being asked to do that from the left side. It's nothing like Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin setting up in the left circle but able to mega-blast with right-handed shots.

Moreover, where is evidence that Neal can otherwise play the point?

You know, as in keeping the puck in the zone, pinching, covering on defense.

Is this really the time to tinker with something already known to work?

Letang is a bit different. He won't be changing power-play positions as much as priorities. At the right point last season, he had carte blanche to take a risk toward creating offense. If there was a break the other way, fellow point man Steve Sullivan was the first to backpedal.

That initial backpedal now will be done by Letang.

More applause from around the conference.

Truth be told, I'm not even wild about Crosby and Malkin sharing the same side of the rink, given their history of crossing wires over there.

Look, there are no perfect solutions given these players' various skill sets. Never could that have been clearer than with Bylsma's still-astounding move in the last playoffs to take Crosby off the top unit. So maybe unconventional is the way to go. For all we know, the Penguins' power play will storm out Saturday in Philadelphia and look like Guy Lafleur and the 1970s Canadiens.

Just not seeing it.

Anyway, want an actual counterproposal as opposed to just criticism?

OK, I'll take a shot, but I get one lifeline:

1. Put Crosby, a playmaker without peer, on the half-wall. That's where playmakers go.

2. Use Malkin in that new Neal role. We know Malkin can finish off those back-door plays, we know Malkin's daring enough to make all the back-and-forth gambling work, and we know he can play defense.

3. Put Neal in front. No, he isn't great there. I don't think he even likes it. But a power play with this much skill doesn't need a strict John LeClair type. It needs someone smart enough to know when to screen and when to drift back into the high slot. That's where Neal is most dangerous.

4. Let Letang do whatever he wants. He's good like that.

5. Call Ottawa. Bring Sergei Gonchar back.

You're welcome.

 

 
 


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