Pittsburgh Penguins: 8 Things That Must Change Next Season
Last week, I compiled a list of eight things Pittsburgh Penguins have to look forward to next season in light of their quick exit from the 2011 NHL Playoffs.
But with the good comes the bad. One thing every early playoff exit does well is highlight problem areas that need to be addressed before the start of the season.
With the numerous free agents that will enter the market, changes for the Pens will be inevitable.
Outside of the new players joining and old players leaving, here are eight things that must change before the start of the 2011-2012 season.
Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or questions.
Matt Niskanen's Confidence
Along with James Neal came Matt Niskanen in the Dallas trade and it was considered a "win" for the Pens. Neal would provide strength and a good shot at the wing position and the Pens could develop Niskanen into a solid third-pairing defenseman.
The Pens ran into some issues when Niskanen had some obvious problems adapting to the Pens' gritty dump-and-chase style of hockey. At some points, he looked lost on the ice and the Pens paid for it on the scoreboard.
Now that Niskanen will have an entire training camp to really learn the system and get used to it, there will be no excuses for him and he will have to fight for a starting position.
The Pens are very much stacked in the position of defense, both on the team and in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He can be replaced and I know there were times, especially during the playoffs, when people were calling for Deryk Engelland to take his place.
Engelland is known for his iron fists, but his defensive play has been good and should not be overlooked.
I want to see Niskanen develop in the weeks following up to the start of the season, but if he isn't up to the task, there are plenty of defenseman who can take his place.
At home, the Pens had a record of 25-14-2. Away, it was 24-11-6. That adds up to 52 points achieved at home and 54 points on the road.
The numbers are very similar for the most part. However, numbers sometimes lie.
The Pens were very uncomfortable at home all season.
Two of their worst losses of the season, both against Boston, were at home and saw the Pens give up leads in a matter of seconds. But the list goes further than the two Boston games.
For some unexplainable reason, the Pens played an unstable game at home while their game away was pretty impressive.
Next season, the Pens should really try to tap into the home-cooking in Pittsburgh and make use of the good fanbase we have. Once Pittsburgh fans are rocking, there's no shutting them up.
Matt Cooke's Aggressiveness
This one needs no explanation.
Simply put, Matt Cooke needs to tame the temper.
I know some Pens fans want him off the team, but I'm not ready to pull the plug yet. Cooke has been too important to the team to be let go.
Regardless, Cooke will have to be extra careful because of the target on his back since his hit on Marc Savard. Based on the League not looking at far more serious hits from other players, it looks like Cooke's name is suspension-worthy alone.
But as long as he's making good decisions on the ice, he won't have to worry about anything. Let's hope that's the case.
Finishing in 60 Minutes
23 of the Pens' games went into overtime, 13 of those went into a shootout.
There obviously isn't anything theoretically wrong with needing extra time to decide a game, but the Pens seemed to depend on it a little too much.
Some could make the excuse that the fact the Pens were taking teams into overtime with the lack of scoring talent should be applauded. I say the Pens need to make sure they avoid falling into it out of habit.
After a while, giving up those extra points, especially to Eastern Conference or Atlantic Division teams could hurt them.
The overarching point is that the Pens need to fight for their wins within the 60-minute time period.
The wins in the shootout are especially problematic since shootouts aren't in the NHL's repertoire after the regular season. Those extra points are obviously important at the time and it's fantastic that the Pens are so good at the shootout, but again, they need to make the effort to close the game during the scheduled time.
Putting their best effort to win in 60 minutes is a lot easier, both on the body and the mind.
Kris Letang's Inconsistency
This isn't so much of a problem as it is a kick in the butt for Kris Letang.
In the first half of the season, we saw what he was capable of. His name was being tossed around with Nick Lidstrom in the Norris candidate pool because of his terrific defensive displays.
But around the halfway mark of the season, we started seeing flashes of the old Kris Letang. The one who couldn't hit the net, who pinched too much on offensive rushes and who lost his temper at the wrong time in a game.
The fact that Letang's booming play came when Sidney Crosby was putting up the numbers of a lifetime could mean something significant, but Letang will need to be able to step up when his team needs him, not just when the team is doing well as a unit.
He's very capable of doing this; he just needs to find that consistency so the team can depend on him all season, not just the first half.
It should be interesting to see how Letang responds in this upcoming season.
The Pens took 480 penalties in 2010-2011, good for most in the NHL.
While their infamous system asks for some scrappy play, the Pens took far too many penalties in games. Many times, they would come in the final minutes of a game and allow a team to tie up a game or take the lead.
The Pens need to reel it in at points because their over-aggressiveness is hurting the team, not helping.
The benefit to the many penalties was the incredible effectiveness of the Pens' penalty kill. They ended the regular season atop the NHL.
Despite the good penalty kill, it isn't worth toying with fate.
Killing penalties prevents losses; they don't bring wins.
Pens need to depend on their game to win. Spending two minutes successfully making diving plays and breaking up passes isn't how that can happen.
Coming Back in the Third Period
No, that's not how many power play goals the Pens scored in the second half of the season, but it is how many times the Pens came back from a deficit to win after the second period.
This number is troublesome.
Every team that has won the Cup since the lockout has been in the top 10 in the NHL in comebacks after the second period. The fact that the Pens didn't do it once shows that their resilience needs some work.
After the season they've had, it's surprising this could even be a problem.
Every successful hockey team needs to be able to put prior mistakes behind them and find a way to win when down. In the end, it's the character points that will count more than the points on the rankings.
This is another slide that needs no words.
The power play ranked 25th in the NHL and they were dead last in the playoffs. Pitiful is the only word that comes to mind when describing the power play.
Too often it seems like the ones on the power play are looking for the perfect pass to put the puck on net. Other times, the passes aren't crisp enough and the one-timer can't happen because the pointman has to settle the puck, giving penalty killers time to get in the shooting lanes.
The problems go on. However, they need to be fixed.
It's sometimes embarrassing to imagine that a team with players like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could have problems on the man advantage, but it's very possible.
Out of everything in this list, the power play is what must change the most. The Pens hurt themselves more by going on a power play at times, to the point where fans wish there was a way to turn down a power play.
It's about time the power play became something to get excited over instead of dreading it.