Tim Benz: Penguins fans must prepare for real change … eventually | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz

This is always a frustrating time of year to write about the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Well, at least in non-Stanley Cup winning seasons anyway.

The cycle is drudgery, and it is familiar.

The Penguins lose a series. The fans, media, locker room, and management call for change. Rumors emerge about potential deals. The media reports them. Then the fans, bloggers, and Twittersphere lash out in anger at the very suggestion that a star player, coach, or general manager could be pushed out the door.

It’s the circle of life.

If only Simba could skate.

We watched this play out last year when trade rumors cropped up about Phil Kessel. Comically, the local media was accused of “trying to run Phil out of town.” In reality, I knew of very few media members who actually endorsed the notion of dealing Kessel. Instead, they were just discussing the exploration of deals that never materialized.

But for some in the Phil DePhense Phoundation, the nuanced difference was lost. Any suggestion of trading Kessel was blasphemous.

This spring: same song, different verse. Now it’s Evgeni Malkin at the center of trade speculation. And once again the media is being blamed for “trying to run Geno out of town.”

The “Malkin Maniacs” are keeping up quite nicely with the Phil DePhense Phoundation.

Note all the “whataboutism” in those tweets. That’s not a full representation, but it’s the norm based on what I see.

The Malkin Maniacs don’t want to debate the merits of keeping or trading Geno. They want to conflate and muddle the topic by comparing Malkin to other Penguins players, management, coaches, and — I guess — Starling Marte and Ben Roethlisberger.

Oh, and as for not being critical of Roethlisberger? I beg to differ, sir. As would Ben. Check his Twitter blocks.

This is standard practice, though, for Penguins fans this time of year. Because the local hockey team has — successfully — been so star-driven over the years, I’ve always felt that the culture is to pick a specific player over the logo more so than when rooting for the other pro sports teams in Pittsburgh. I don’t notice that phenomenon as much when the Pirates or Steelers are a topic of conversation.

There have always been too many “Sid or Geno” debates for my taste, as opposed to “Sid and Geno” conversations. Marc-Andre Fleury has been gone for two years, and there are still “Murray versus Fleury” arguments that creep into Penguins fan discourse online and on the call-in shows.

And this spring, there’s a lot of “the players are at fault” or “blame the coaches and management.” The truth is that both need blame. In other words, the attempt by some is to say, “Don’t look at Malkin’s bad season over here. Look over there at Mike Sullivan getting out-coached by Barry Trotz and all those questionable moves by general manager Jim Rutherford.”

Or, “simply” trade Olli Maatta, Jack Johnson, and Patric Hornqvist instead.

Because, if you want substantive change, the goal should be to trade the mid-roster players instead of the stars like Malkin, Kris Letang, and Kessel, right?

That’ll do it. Sure.

Of course, no one genuinely thinks that way. It just feels better to say because the fan base is so emotionally attached to these star players for all they’ve accomplished. The very notion of endorsing a trade of one of them — let alone all three — makes folks break out in hives.

But, c’mon. When Sullivan and Rutherford were complaining about skaters not playing the right way, looking to score goals all the time, and getting too fat and happy with playoff success, do you think they were talking about Johnson, Hornqvist, and Maatta?

Or were they talking about numbers 81, 71, and 58?

One thing no one seems to refute is that there is a disconnect between what Sullivan and Rutherford expect from many of the key players on the ice and how the players are going about those tasks.

The dialogue among Penguins fans seems to be: Choose one of three things before next season.

A) Change the coach and/or G.M.

B) Trade some of the key players.

C) Move some of the supporting cast and hope that somehow a gap is bridged between management and the stars.

That last choice seems to be the most popular, for obvious reasons.

But I don’t think leopards change their spots. Sullivan is going to keep asking the players to play with more structure and responsibility. Malkin, Letang, and Kessel are going to keep doing their own thing and playing high-risk, high-reward hockey.

So let me advance “Choice D” for the fan base to consider: Keep everybody this offseason. Trade none of the stars. If that doesn’t work, fire the coach midseason like the Penguins always do, and hope for the best “with a new voice in the room, n’at.”

They’ll probably win another Cup. Then we wash, rinse, repeat in a few years from now when those guys are all around 35 or 36 years of age.

Worst-case scenario, at least we don’t have to swap out our favorite jerseys as we watch this great team eventually become like the Steelers of the 1980s.

Even after putting it in those terms, I honestly think a lot of Penguins fans would prefer that eventuality to waving goodbye to any one of the current superstars.

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