We can argue whether bringing Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin back was the right thing to do or an emotional miscalculation the Penguins will regret sooner or later, and we probably will at least until next season’s playoffs.
But no matter the side of the Letang/Malkin fence on which you happen to reside, it should be apparent their returns can’t and won’t address the elephant in the Penguins’ locker room.
“I think we have to get tougher,” radio analyst Phil Bourque observed this week during a visit with the DVE Morning Show.
That was less than a revelation.
But it was also a much-needed acknowledgment of a still-glaring deficiency General Manager Ron Hextall (a tough guy player) and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke (a tough guy executive) have yet to address.
“I don’t think we’re a tough enough team, and that pains me to say that,” Bourque maintained. “What we did in ’16 and ’17, we didn’t get exposed. The teams that we played (on the way to back-to-back Stanley Cups), they tried to rough us up a little bit but not the way the Islanders and the Rangers have over the last few years.
“I look at what the Rangers did to us in that first round, what (defenseman Jacob) Trouba did, we had no answer. Our only answer was 37-year-old Brian Boyle, and then he goes out with an injury.”
The Penguins went out for a fourth consecutive first round and lost their franchise-record fifth consecutive postseason series in the process soon thereafter.
The type of guy the Penguins lack is hard to find, one who can serve as a deterrent to the NHL’s traditional postseason thuggery and still play a functioning role on a team that aspires to rise above such things via a skill-and-speed game.
The latter is an admiral approach.
But it ain’t working and it won’t, to borrow a favorite Mike Sullivan-ism “moving forward.”
“The other part is a head coach like Mike Sullivan, it seems like over the years that hasn’t been his type of player,” Bourque continued. “I think it’s gotta become his type of player. I’m maybe not choosing my words perfectly here, but I think for the safety of a 35-year-old Sidney
Crosby, a 36-year-old Evgeni Malkin, a 35-year-old Kris Letang, a 37-year-old Jeff Carter, you gotta have a hammer, man.
“These poor guys, Jake Guentzel getting almost his head ripped off in that game where Sid got hurt, I don’t think anybody said ‘boo’ to Jacob Trouba after that happened. Again, I apologize if I’m not choosing my words absolutely perfectly here, but I’m watching from up top (in the radio booth) and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, we don’t have anybody.’ We have nobody that can push back to a guy like Jacob Trouba, who is trying to rip the head off of your star players.
“And that bothers me to the core because that’s not who we are. We’re the Pittsburgh Penguins, man, in Pittsburgh, Pa. We have sandpaper. We have grit. And if somebody punches us in the nose, we punch them back in the nose twice as hard. But we don’t have that guy, and that bothers me.
“We don’t need a brawler but you need a guy that you’re going to accept into your lineup to say, ‘OK, this isn’t the perfect guy for me, but this is a guy that we need. This is a guy that’s gonna protect our star players.’”
That’s never been Letang’s or Malkin’s department, but that doesn’t mean they’ve done all they can along the way to all the playoff failure the Pens have endured in the aftermath of back-to-back championships.
“This isn’t just about the puppy dog noses and the pretty flower petals, this great little story about these guys staying together,” Bourque offered. “It’s gotta be more than that.
“And yes, we take a lot of pride, and it doesn’t come easy to make the playoffs as many years as they have. But you gotta win a round, man; can we just start there? Can we win a round? Can we get a burr in our saddle and get a little more pissed off come playoff time and start winning playoff games and winning playoff rounds the way we should with the amount of talent that’s on the ice?
“I know injuries play a factor, OK? I get all that. But at the end of the day, this new ownership group and now Brian Burke and Ron Hextall have decided, ‘We’re going back to you, boys. We still believe in you.’ It’s gotta be a two-way street. You can’t just keep signing these guys and bringing these guys back and then losing in the first round.
“Eventually, these guys have to get together and bring it home, man.”
There hasn’t been much said or done about that in recent seasons, either.
Welcome back, ‘Tanger.’
Welcome back, ‘Geno.’
Much work remains to be done.