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Therrien's not the Penguins' problem

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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009

It wasn't long ago that Michel Therrien seemed a lock to become the longest-tenured coach in Penguins history.

All he had to do was make it to game 62 to surpass Ed Johnston's mark of 276 consecutive games behind the Penguins' bench.

Now, who knows?

You lose at home to Tampa Bay, Toronto and Florida by a combined score of 15-4 and fall out of playoff position at midseason, a year after going to the Stanley Cup final, and you better start wearing a flame-retardant suit to work.

This is especially true in the NHL, where coaches drop like pucks.

Questions about Therrien's job security have arisen for good reason and won't go away just because the Penguins beat the sad-sack Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday.

Just know this: The team's problems are more about player performance and player personnel than coaching.

Therrien's not blameless, mind you.

But he shouldn't be made the scapegoat.

Therrien didn't sign Miroslav Satan and Mark Eaton to contracts totaling $5.5 million this season. General manager Ray Shero did.

Therrien doesn't have one of the worst save percentages in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury, the team's $35 million goaltender, does.

Therrien didn't knock Sergei Gonchar out of the lineup for six months. David Koci did.

Those factors and plenty more have contributed to the Penguins' slide.

Marian Hossa's decision to bolt was a crushing blow. Ryan Malone's apparent unwillingness to take a discount to stay was another -- not that anyone could blame him for wanting to hit the jackpot.

Ryan Whitney's foot surgery, combined with Gonchar's injury, took away two elite offensive defensemen.

Remember, Whitney finished sixth among defensemen in scoring two years ago and had 40 points on an injured foot last season. Once he gets his own power play, he'll be a serious threat to lead all NHL defensemen in points.

Injuries to Tyler Kennedy, Mike Zigomanis, Hal Gill, Fleury and others were setbacks.

And then there is this astounding statistic: Star forwards Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby had gone 23 and 24 games, respectively, without a power-play goal going into last night's game before Crosby tipped a Malkin shot home against the NHL's worst penalty kill.

How is that possible?

Part of the problem has to be the way the players have been deployed, particularly keeping Malkin at the point for so long. Malkin asked to play the point in training camp. That doesn't mean he had to stay there when things began to sour.

Malkin should work the right half-boards, as he did when Crosby was injured last season. Crosby should play down low. Both need to score a power-play goal more than once per Troy Polamalu haircut, no matter where they are positioned.

Also curious was Therrien's decision to scratch defenseman Alex Goligoski the past two games. And Petr Sykora, who snapped the team's 0 for 33 power-play slide last night, needs to be a regular on the top power play.

But even if the coaching hasn't been perfect, better coaching is not what's needed most.

The Penguins need better players. Whitney rounding into form, and Gonchar's return would help to satisfy that need. A winger for Crosby is an absolute must.

In the meantime, the people on hand need to play to their talent level.

One could argue it's the coach's job to make that happen.

I think it's more about the player.

The likes of Maxime Talbot, Jordan Staal and Fleury — who was very good last night — all need to perform consistently better. And if Satan doesn't register a pulse sometime soon, maybe it's time to send a message and cut ties with him.

Despite some obvious deficiencies, this team is good enough to win way more than it loses.

These players are good enough to win.

This coach, for sure, is good enough to win.

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