The Pompeii Penguins - By Phil Lee.

 The ancient city of Pompeii, stood strong and thrived, for almost 300 years as part of the Roman Empire. The whole time, though, long before the Roman’s strolled through and had their way, the then town sat at the bottom of the what would be responsible for it’s eventual destruction. In 79 AD, the Volcano known as Mount Vesuvius erupted, and brought catastrophic end to the city. The people of Pompeii were killed by scorching heats only endured by the Devil himself, suffocated and entombed under metres of ash and pumice that engulfed the city along with it. And just like that, the city was no more. Today, Pompeii is a mere ruin, locked in a freeze frame of it’s own demise, nothing more than a tourist attraction, forever haunted by it’s past.

 And I haven’t even seen the movie, yet. 

  But like this city in ruin, I can’t help but draw some similarities with that of the Penguins’ story, or at least the past decade of it. The Romans named Mario Lemieux, Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kristopher Letang had the city feeling alive, again. The cup runs of ‘08/’09, which we thought would be simply the start to greater success, turned out to be the pinnacle of these Penguins, with only disappointment clouding over the following years. The volcano erupted in 2010, and since then, it’s only been a matter of time before the clouds of ash descended over the team, at their seemingly most disbanded point, placing the franchise at a convenient crossroads in their history. With the initial question being, how and why did this happen? How did the Penguins go from a team with the world at their toes, to seemingly kicking the world a little further away, and letting their very own Mt. Vesuvius consume them? 

 A general manager in Ray Shero that fully embraced Dan Bylsma’s coaching philosophy, and gave him the required tools. He (Shero) drafted the players best suited to the system, pulled off some remarkable deals to bolster the lineup, and got his franchise superstars to commit to long term deals. Oh, and the award of GM of the year 2013, too. Shero eventually found himself in too deep with Bylsma’s system, and after signing him to a 2 year extension after a ECF sweep by the Boston Bruins, out of hope more than anything, that Bylsma could somehow fix things. But Dan Bylsma, the winningest coach in Penguins history, a 2011 Jack Adams award winner for coach of the year, he simply lost the dressing room, little by little, along with post-season disappointment and underachievement, every year since they achieved the ultimate prize as a team united. Refusing to make adjustments to his system, or more to the point, not knowing what to do when opposing teams eventually figure it out. And above all else, what Dan Bylsma lost the ability to do more and more with each passing year, was to motivate his team. To prepare them, to guide them, to yell at them, and develop them. In any sport, anywhere in the world, a coach will eventually lose his dressing room, save one remarkable story involving a Sir Alex Ferguson. It happens over time, almost going unnoticed, and then one day, like Pompeii, it’s gone. Bylsma will almost certainly lose his job after the meltdown series vs New York, and Shero’s blind faith and hope in him, may cost him his own job, too. 

 However, past coaching and general management, there are the players, the players that make up a team. A team whose locker room has words like ACCOUNTABILITY, PASSION and WORK ETHIC plastered above their heads. Following in the footsteps of some of the greatest players to take the ice, with a chance to shape their own legacy. The writing is literally on the wall for all of them. Through all of their coach’s failings to motivate them, you have to wonder how a prize as glorious as the Stanley Cup, playing the sport you love, cannot be motivation enough, at times. The frustrating thing is, that sometimes, those qualities are there, the Penguins go through stints where they make the game look easy, and could conquer the mountain with nothing more than a simmering blow. But when it matters, when it really matters, they’re engulfed by not motivation and adrenaline, but fear and doubt. Suddenly, no one is accountable, the passion got shrunk down in Dana Heinze’s washing machine, and the work ethic sat in the video room watching 2009 playoff montages on Youtube. If one positive thing will hope to rise from the ashes of this playoff meltdown, it will be Marc-Andre Fleury, who silenced critics with a superb post season, only to be outshone by an outstanding Henrik Lundqvist, who NBCSN may have a legal marriage with. Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter, and Brian Gibbons also get heroic mentions here, but I will praise them much more in later posts. Defensive lapses, and an inability to generate offence when it mattered most, went hand in hand with the flat footedness which had all but been forgotten about during games 2, 3 and 4 of the Rangers series. Bylsma’s reluctance to play 87 and 71 together hindered the play of his 5 million dollar sniper, James Neal, and gave the Rangers just one line to focus on shutting down, as opposed to 2, 3 on a good day. By the time Game 7 arrived, and those adjustments were finally made, the Penguins were already buried for the season. Already looking ahead to the future. 

 A new coach will bring a renewed sense of purpose, and an drive to succeed again, but for how long? For now, like Pompeii, the Penguins are freeze-framed in time. Their future about to be heavily influenced by the coming summer months, and the looming decisions from Burkle, Lemieux et al. For Sidney Crosby, it’s leadership questions, as his body language throughout the playoffs created a frustration that transcended down to his team mates, and to the fan base. For a new coach, who will have the weight of expectation firmly on his shoulders, before he’s even put pen to paper. And to Dan Bylsma, whose phone will be ringing with job offers the morning after he is relieved of his duties. 

As much as it hurts now, I’m already excited with the thought of change, and a new approach. It’ll be a long off-season, filled with Vietnam style flashbacks of Derek Brassard and King Lundqvist, but come September, it starts again. The expectation, the pressure, the demand, it rises up, again. 

At 3am Wednesday morning, amongst all the anger, all of my Twitter GM’ing, and all of my emotion, the story of Pompeii came into my head when thinking about the Pittsburgh Penguins. Along with this..

"These Penguins, man. These God damn Penguins." 

 There may have been an expletive in there, too. And for those who follow me on Twitter, will know there was most definitely an expletive in there. But please, don’t ever tell me it’s “just a game”. Like so many others, hockey is my passion. (Sorry Baseball, you’re a close second.) I live and breathe the beautiful game, and I always will do. Through it’s ebbs and flows, through it’s endless torment of my emotions and testing of my blood pressure stability, it will be there, being the reason I constantly go to work on 3 hours sleep, either amped up after a win, or dragging my bottom lip across the pavement after a loss. But these Penguins, these God damn Penguins… As frustrated as we get with them, as stir crazy as they make us, they sure as hell ensure you get the full range of emotion on their roller coaster ride. 

No wonder we have to buckle up, (baby).

Let’s Go Pens… Not you, Bylsma.  

Phil Lee

Twitter @LhillPee61. Follow us @BritPensFanClub on Twitter for more Penguins chatter. We want to hear your thoughts.