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Starkey: Penguins have issues

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 11:04 p.m.
Penguins MVP center Evgeni Malkin skates during practice at Consol Energy Center Jan. 15, 2013. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

OK, maybe it's too early to shake up the Penguins.

It's not too early to think about it.

General manager Ray Shero has to be considering the possibility as he watches his seemingly joyless, often-lifeless club putter along. How could he not? After the 4-1 loss to the Islanders on Thursday, his coach flatly admitted the players lacked energy and spirit. Again.

This is becoming a theme, and it's somewhat troubling. You'd have thought no team would be hungrier than the Penguins this season.

Do they look hungry to you?

Does it look like anybody's having fun?

What, exactly, is this team's personality?

Seems a little stale around the Consol (Palpable Lack of) Energy Center these days — and that magical Stanley Cup run seems like an eternity ago. The core of the team remains essentially the same, without anything to show for the past three seasons. They do not look significantly different this year, other than missing the considerable presence of Jordan Staal.

The 3-3 record is no big deal. It's more the vibe. And this isn't happening in a vacuum. It's happening in the wake of a shockingly swift dismissal from the playoffs.

Shero isn't going to change coaches anytime soon — nor should he — so the question becomes, what does he do with this collection of players?

He can't afford to wait around if things don't improve quickly. A week from Saturday, we'll be a quarter of the way through the season.

Of all the issues, let's start with the most surprising one: scoring. Secondary production is nonexistent. The power play suddenly stinks. Evgeni Malkin has one goal.

One idea would be to reunite invisible Chris Kunitz with Malkin and James Neal. Of course, it would then be time to renew the interminable search for Sidney Crosby's winger. Shero has some assets on his blue line, notably Simon Depres, if he is willing to try again.

But that would still leave the elephant in the room, the power play. It's an elephant because the primary issue is a sticky one: Crosby and Malkin still do not display much on-ice chemistry. They are like two powerful elements that mysteriously diminish when combined.

I asked Malkin after practice if it's difficult because both like the same spot.

“Yeah, you're right, we both like the boards,” Malkin said. “It's tough, you know? We try to change: Sometimes I play boards, sometimes he plays boards. … We just want to do what works.”

Already, Bylsma is making changes. Neal will move down low Thursday night, and Malkin will move back to the point.

“We need to change,” Malkin said. “If we play four forwards, Sid playing the wall and Nealer playing lower is better, because Nealer likes playing lower. We'll see. I'm OK. I think I'm a good playmaker, and I can pass to Sid or Tanger, and they have both one-timers.”

The main shooters should be Malkin and Neal. Kris Letang is struggling at quarterback. The whole unit is attempting too many fancy passes. Too much Globetrotter stuff.

Ad-libbing just isn't the recipe, and as Kunitz said, “We're ad-libbing once we get to the red line.”

Bylsma could give Crosby and Malkin each his own unit, as he did briefly in the playoffs, but it's inevitable one would feel slighted.

Malkin's take on splitting the two: “I don't know, I like playing with Sid … Just play simpler. Play simple and score a couple of goals, and we have more confidence.”

Crosby's take: “We've had success together, so I don't know why you'd (split them). There's no need for that. We're going to make it work.”

It's a conundrum, and Bylsma's future as Penguins coach may ultimately rest on whether he can maximize the elite talent on his power play.

Finally, the spirit. It's hard to detect much. Everybody just stood there when Ben Lovejoy got his head rammed into the boards the other night.

Maybe the Penguins need a troublemaker, if Matt Cooke no longer is able/willing to play that role.

Maybe they need another significant blue-line presence.

Maybe all of this is an overreaction to a slow start in a weird season. But if I'm Shero, I'm not waiting around much longer.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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