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Starkey: Penguins stars on the spot

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins general manager Ray Shero (left) added depth Wednesday, March 5, 2014, at the trade deadline. But it’s the Pens’ stars, such as Sidney Crosby (right), who ultimately give the team the best chance to win a title.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 10:06 p.m.
 

The story isn't Ryan Kesler. Not at all.

The Penguins swung hard and missed on Kesler. So give 'em credit for stepping to the plate — general manager Ray Shero always does — and let it go. Move on. The story isn't the big fish they did not land or the shrimp they pulled in to play on the top line.

Honestly, it's not about the star they did not get.

It's about the stars they still have.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury are the Penguins' highest-paid players (along with injured defenseman Paul Martin). Isn't it about time those guys did something other than fall apart and fail to produce in the biggest games of all?

Depth is wonderful. You need depth. Shero found some Wednesday in the form of Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak. The latter has the speed and quick release to potentially mesh with Crosby. Goc is a solid, versatile, veteran presence. Maybe Beau Bennett returns to bolster the third line. The Penguins have other young forwards who could fortify their depth.

It is the stars, however, who ultimately give you the chance to win championships.

Go back to 2009. Fleury (first round), Crosby (second), Malkin (third) each scribbled his signature on a series that year to vault the Penguins into the Stanley Cup Final. How many series has any one of them owned since then?

Neal arrived two years after the Cup and has been a wonderful regular-season performer. But he has failed to score a goal in 20 of his 25 playoff games here. Worse, he is prone to fits of on-ice insanity. He got suspended for a game in the Flyers series two years ago — a series he entered with an injured hand because of a stupid fight with Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference.

Playing with an injured foot, Neal put up zero points and a minus-7 rating against the Bruins last spring. This is the year he needs to earn that $5 million salary in the most important games.

Fleury has disintegrated too often over the past four postseasons. He was mercifully pulled in the first round last year. It's true that his failures were partially the result of a team-wide distaste for defense. But your $5 million goaltender simply has to play better. There's a reason you gave him that seven-year contract, and it wasn't to watch him put up sub-.900 save percentages and give up ridiculous goals every spring.

Crosby and Malkin — earning $17.4 million between them — have come unglued too often and found the net too rarely with seasons on the line.

Go back to the Montreal series in 2010, when the two combined for two goals in seven games. After missing the following year's playoffs, both underachieved against the Flyers in 2012. Claude Giroux outplayed Crosby. Sean Couturier outplayed Malkin. The most memorable play the two combined on in that series was a manic Malkin running over Crosby at the offensive blue line on a Penguins power play.

Then last year happened. After productive series against the Islanders and Senators, the Penguins' two studs let the Bruins get under their skin early. Unfathomably, they combined for no points in a humiliating sweep.

So forget about Ryan Kesler. Forget about the fact the Steelers made more interesting personnel moves than the Penguins at the NHL trade deadline. The Penguins still have enough to get through a suddenly strengthened East.

It will be a matter of building on their evolving commitment to defense and winning the coaching battles in key areas such as matchups and special teams. It will require some depth guys coming through, plus Martin and maybe Bennett returning (Kris Letang seems like way more of a long shot).

Mostly, though, the Penguins will need their stars to play like stars when the weather grows warm.

It's been awhile.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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