Time for Penguins to Risk Change and Invest in Talent

Listening to local sports radio the day after the Penguins lost another game seven at home, it was clear that Pittsburgh’s fans were in self-righteous midseason form. A few calls for Fleury’s head. A couple of yinzers suggesting that Dan Bylsma should be replaced. Nothing out of the usual.

The biggest target was winger Alexei Kovalev, who struggled to find offense in the series, as did the rest of the team.

The complaints were typical. Kovalev was perceived to be lazy, something forgiven in the regular season but highlighted during the Tampa series.

He was too old. Too slow. His lone goal in game one wasn’t worth what the team spent for him (a seventh-round pick).

He’s an easy pick to be let go of this offseason. There’s no guarantee he’ll take the kind of discount needed to be retained on a Penguins’ roster that is short of forwards and tight against the salary cap. Even if he does, he might not be an ideal candidate to play in Dan Bylsma’s nitroglycerine forechecking system.

It seems likely that Kovalev won’t return to end his career in Pittsburgh, and the fanfare for him is limited following the Tampa meltdown.

But should the Pens let him walk?

Put shortly, no. The Penguins need to resign Alex Kovalev. The Tampa series made it very clear that behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins are a team almost entirely bereft of scoring talent, or at least the kind of talent that can produce in a tight-checking playoff series.

Pittsburgh is loaded with grinders and role players, and that plays to Bylsma’s style of coaching. He can get the best out of a fourth-line player, perhaps more than any coach in hockey. High-skill, low-effort players are exposed in his systems, and no concessions are made to accommodate them.

That is no reason to let a talented player like Alex Kovalev walk.

Should the team sign him at the cost of other free agents like Maxime Talbot or Craig Adams? No, not a chance, especially as Talbot and Adams have proved exceptionally useful in multiple situations. Talbot, in particular, cleared the air of a subpar regular season with an excellent postseason performance.

If Kovalev is willing to sign at a discount, the team should lock him up as soon as possible.

The promise of playing with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby — the kinds of players who have the smarts and the hands to handle Kovalev’s circus passes — should be enough to keep him around, if only for one more year. Due to injuries, fans never got to see Kovalev play with either.

The Penguins have very little skill behind their top two centers, and its partly by design. Byslma has had more than two full seasons and three postseasons with which to establish a team identity, and there is almost no one left on the current roster who was not drafted by GM Ray Shero.

This team is fully marked by the work of Bylsma and Shero, and they have invested in defense, goaltending and strength at the center position.

But if a world-class puckhandler is willing to take a discount to stay on the roster, they need to go against their own grain and sign him.

Like the team, fans need to open their minds to the idea of resigning Kovalev. James Neal is arguably the team’s best winger, and whom the team has yet to see any real production from. If Neal’s poor production can be attributed to playing alongside Mark Letestu and not Malkin or Crosby, shouldn’t Kovalev be given the same benefit of doubt?

Dan Bylsma's systems bring the best out of role players, but often at the expense of skill players like Kovalev (wstera2/flickr)

Bylsma never acknowledged after game seven why he sat Kovalev during the final 6-on-4 power play and whether it was meant to send a message. Kovalev was electric during the first period of the game. Did Bylsma really think Mark Letestu presented a better chance to tie the game than the enigmatic 1,000-point scorer?

Perhaps the blame is partly to lie with the head coach. Through his brief and successful tenure, Byslma has proven he is among the league’s finest in drawing the best out of second-tier players.

However, he has shown little ability to draw the best out of the best players, something perhaps captured in Evgeni Malkin’s struggles over the past few seasons (injuries and subpar wingers have also contributed).

It will take a change of mentality to keep Kovalev in town. Bylsma may not like it, but the Penguins would be better served to have Kovalev playing slowly on Malkin’s wing than to have Arron Asham playing six minutes per night on the fourth line.

Kovalev, at 38, cannot create offense all alone. At his age, he needs a premier center to open up space for him. With Malkin and Crosby, he has two premier centers who can give him the time to work as only he is able to. That kind of time and space were not afforded him this season, as Tampa Bay was able to pressure all of Pittsburgh’s remaining forwards and force them to make mistakes.

If Kovalev walks, he won’t have been the first skilled casualty of Bylsma’s grinding systems. Petr Sykora was a steal for the Penguins a few years ago, and one of the team’s best wingers. Along with Ryan Malone and Malkin, Sykora was one-third of the team’s most deadly scoring line.

The Malone-Malkin-Sykora line may still be the most balanced and effective line in the Penguins’ post-lockout history. When Bylsma took over for the 2009 postseason, Sykora fell to a spot role, playing limited minutes. He became a healthy scratch often times and ended up in Minnesota, where his career came to an unceremonious end.

Sykora wasn’t a bad player, rather, he was of the most purely skilled scorers the Penguins have had in years. But he couldn’t skate the way Bylsma’s systems demanded, and he was left behind.

Surely, Kovalev will be left behind if the system doesn’t bend, as history suggests it won’t. But after watching the Penguins trundle away a 3-1 series lead, the team should open itself up to sacrificing grit for skill, if only for one line, and if only for one year.

 

 

James Conley

James Conley

James was a Penguins contributor at THW and SB Nation Pensburgh and owns the Pittsburgh sports blog Slew Footers.

9 Comments

  1. Have Alex come back??? Are you crazy, too slow, not interested in hitting or skating after opposing players with the puck. Ray should extend an offer to Jagr, same age, but he’ll give it his all.
    Let Asham, Adams, Talbot, Dupuis, all go

  2. Murphydump – Kovy “couldn’t care less” not he “could care less”.

  3. Mike Colligan says:

    I’ll have to respectfully disagree on this one. I’ll be surprised if Kovalev has an NHL contract next season, let alone one with Pittsburgh.

  4. Murphydump says:

    Franklin Steele – It’s “Staal”, my god, how long will this take before people realize it?

    James – You ARE joking right? Kovalev is done, DONE. He’s old, he’s slow, and because of this, he took a ton of ridiculous penalties. His effort is ZERO, and Shero and Bylsma have zero patience for that. They tried to catch lightning in a bottle, and it failed. A good try however, especially for a 7th rounder.

    Since his 84 point season in 07-08, he’s a combined minus-19 and his point totals have gone from 65 to 49 to 34. This is a talented player whose age is getting the better of his talent.

    He came in looking interested, only to look like he could care less in the last 3-4 playoff games.

    Thanks for the memories AK, but they’re only going to get worse if you hang around.

  5. Franklin Steele says:

    If you don’t think Jordan Stall is talented, I’m sure there are 29 other teams in the League that would take him off the Pen’s hands.

    I think this season the Pens showed that they had plenty of depth behind the big two, seeing as to how they managed to have one of the franchises most successful seasons ever without their two super stars. I’m not sure where the scoring went in the series against the Lightning, but I don’t think that means they need to overhaul their offensive core.

    This is one of the deepest teams in the League, as evidenced by how they played without Sid and Malkin, and how outstanding their farm team has played.

  6. I get where you are headed with this article, but it seems to have a mixed message. Sign him because you need scoring beyond the big 2, but play him exclusively with them. Crosby and Malkin make the offense as it is. Yes Malkin has been dipping in his production (adjusted for injuries and the such), but he still offers a huge step up from Letestu/Jeffery. Point being, signing Kovalev doesn’t build your scoring depth if you just place him with Malkin as he just replaces the production of whoever was there and you’re still stuck with 2 lines of production and not increasing it to three.

    I am 100% with you though that Adams and Talbot are priorities for the PK prowes alone. TK I believe is an RFA and may require a bit more to stay and that extra bit may be what could sign Kovalev, so given a choice between the two, I’ll take Kennedy’s potential. Also rather than someone like Kovalev who may struggle in the system or not be up to snuff on the skating end for Bylsma’s system, who not give a shot to guys like Sterling/Conner/Letestu on the wing of pairings of Crosby/Kunitz and Neal/Malkin.

    Where do you see Dupuis fitting in?

    Thanks,
    -Kent

    • I think we have to take the same stance as Shero, that the grinding types are always on the market and a talent like Kovy’s doesn’t often come around.
      I just used Talbot and Adams as examples. I think Rupp and Kennedy also bring more to the team, and I certainly wouldn’t let one of the young guys like Jeffrey walk and sub Kovy for him for a season. Hopefully, Jeffrey can play a wing position somewhere on top lines and produce.
      If it is at all feasible, I’d put him on the top wings, as we’ve seen he’d be useless with anyone else.
      I think Kovalev is going to walk, the cap realities force that to happen. Still, I loved the idea of bringing him here, just would have liked to see it played out as they planned and for that to happen he’ll have to be retained.

  7. The reason we got him and Neal was to play with Crosby or Malkin…should def sign kovy back, but the bylsma system thing is a good point to argue against that

    • I hope they do, but it would be a complete about-face of team policy to make a signing like that. Unfortunately, more likely to treat him like Sykora than Bill Guerin.

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