This lockout-shortened season came with mixed expectations for the Pittsburgh Penguins. On one hand, the national media pegged the team as a heavy Stanley Cup favorite, citing a finally-healthy, star-laden roster. On the other hand, locals saw a disappointment in-the-making, citing a team that lost some important players following an embarrassing first round playoff exit last spring.

Twenty-one games into the season – just three shy of the mid-way point – the picture really hasn’t become any clearer.

Sitting atop the Atlantic Division and second in the Eastern Conference with 26 points, it wouldn’t be difficult to argue either pre-season stance at this point.

The Penguins are an impressive team on paper and their record thus far is in line with the skill they have, even if some games are a little more interesting (read: maddening) than they need to be.

But, at the same time, we’re seeing reminders of their 2012 playoff meltdown, which is concerning to say the least.

Sports radio callers, message board members, and bloggers alike are calling for the firing of Dan Bylsma and the addition of a top-flight goal scorer. The fact is, though, that neither needs to happen for this team to succeed – and, really, neither move would correct the existing problems.

Is Dan No Longer The Man?

Bylsma might not be a fan favorite after underachieving in the playoffs the last three seasons, despite doing so two of the three years with significant injury losses; but he’s coached to regular season success since arriving and his road record (2nd best in league history through 146 games) is amazing.

While the first might not impress many, the second should, as it illustrate that he knows how to prepare his team to win in hostile environments, which is exactly what the playoffs breed.

Many suggest that his system is incomplete or all-around bad. But, as Rob Rossi Tweeted, “Rip #pens system if you want, kids. The system is not designed for players to lose track of players in Dzone. Blaming coach easy, uninformed.”

I’m not always a Rossi backer, but he’s right here. Blaming the coach or the system is easy, but it’s also a evasion of discussing the real problems, such as players not performing to expectations.

To add to Rossi’s point, does anyone think he’s telling his players to overpass, undershoot, and turn over the puck? Absolutely not. Sure, one can blame the system for breeding an environment conducive to such mistakes, but anyone easily can counter with the fact that these problems didn’t always exist and could disappear as quickly as they appeared. But I’m sure if/when they do few will commend the coach for eradicating them, despite chastising him for spawning them.

Defending The Offense

If Bylsma’s system is the problem, no player or players added to the roster will make a difference, which makes the calls for a blockbuster trade to bring in a top-flight winger interesting.

The problem in Pittsburgh isn’t a lack of goals scored, as the Penguins rank third in goals-per-game with a 3.29 average. Conversely, the problem is goals allowed, as the Penguins rank 17th in goals-against-per-game with a 2.76 average. The fact that their goal differential is fifth in the NHL at plus-12 despite their terrible defensive play is an attribute to how good their offense really is.

So let me say this the best way I know how: offense is not the problem.

Acquiring a scoring winger for Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby will not prevent the opponent from scoring goals. This line of offense-wins thinking is precisely what has burned the Washington Capitals since the first lockout – and, quite frankly, is what has led so many Penguin fans to ridicule that franchise.

Do we really want the Penguins to become that team that thinks outscoring an opponent is a way to win in the playoffs? If so, we should prepare for future results that look strikingly similar to the results we saw against the Philadelphia Flyers last season.

It wasn’t pretty, and it certainly won’t get any prettier with repetition.

A “New” Identity Is Needed

The Penguins have an embarrassment of riches in terms of high-end offensive talent, which makes watching their games fun and exciting. But with each passing year the identity of the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins of 2009 seems to disappear more and more.

Gone are rugged defenders Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill and in their place are two-way defenders Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen. Also gone are pesky forwards Max Talbot and Matt Cooke and in their place are not-so-pesky players like the rotating door of Beau Bennet/Dustin Jeffrey/Zach Boychuk and neutered Matt Cooke.

Of course, Pascal Dupuis has taken a more prominent role, while James Neal has taken everything Ruslan Fedotenko provided and multiplied it by 10 – but the fact remains that this team as currently constructed lacks a level of snarl that was a trademark of Ray Shero’s early years as Penguins general manager.

It would be easy to point to the Penguins’ penalty kill time of 138:12 (27th in the NHL) or their 85 times shorthanded (26th in the NHL) and claim they are as physical and nasty as they ever have been. It also would be easy to explain that the majority of those penalties are of the obstruction variety from lazy back-checkers caught out of position.

The Penguins don’t hit as frequently or as hard as they used to (11th in the NHL). They don’t block shots at the frequency they once did (9TH in the NHL). And they don’t take away the puck at a respectable level (29th in the NHL). One area they have turned around drastically is their faceoff percentage (4th in the NHL).

While none of these stats alone will turn a poor team into a contender, they all represent attributes of a winning team: sacrifice, hard work, and passion.

Some Leadership Wouldn’t Hurt, Either

The Stanley Cup Champion Penguins of 1991, 1992, and 2009 had been-there-done-that veterans who demanded respect from the team and who had an attentive audience when they spoke.

This team has its fair share of been-there-done-that veterans as well, especially considering a large percentage of the players were on that Cup winning team of four years ago. But few of them are the vocal, emotional, “rah-rah” leaders who can or will give an intermission pep talk to boost morale and change the dynamics of a game.

Sometimes said leader has to come from outside the organization, bringing with him a championship void that fuels a passion and desire that might not exist among the young Championship-winning leaders already in the locker room, even if his on-ice production isn’t what it once was.

It sounds cliché that a team should seek “leadership,” but it really isn’t. In every sport as the playoffs unfold we hear about the grizzled veteran for whom everyone wants to win. Think of Lanny McDonald’s epic red mustache as he captained the Calgary Flames to a Stanley Cup in his final season in 1989, or more recently, think of Ray Lewis’ obnoxious dance and poetic interviews as he captained the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl in his final season just last month.

Sure, they’re great stories for the media to latch onto, but their also legitimate intangibles that motivate players. When a team has a near-retirement player who is well-liked amongst his peers, exudes leadership, and eats/sleeps/breathes championship…well, it becomes contagious and creates a “monster.”

Leadership alone won’t win games. Even Gary Roberts will testify to that. But combined with talent and hard work, it balances a roster in the locker room, on the bench, and on the ice.

That can’t be overlooked or understated for this Penguin team as the April 3 trade deadline and ultimately the playoffs approach.

2+2=4

Reading through this dissertation (which has grown to three or four times the length I originally anticipated as my list of topics increased) might lead one to believe an apocalypse is upon is.

It’s not, and this team is not bad — it’s just incomplete.

Shero need not sacrifice the future by selling off his draft picks and prospects for a superstar whose name rhymes with “erome gnla.” That said, if a veteran of Jerome Iginla’s caliber should become available at a respectable price, he would provide several of the attributes mentioned above that are lacking, such as leadership, toughness, and an insatiable thirst for a Stanley Cup.

More realistic targets might include the worn-down, but not worn-out winger Brendan Morrow; physical, shutdown defenseman Ladislav Smid; and veteran penalty kill specialist defenseman Robyn Regehr; among other lesser-known, lower impact players.

Sure, it would be exciting to see Daniel Alfredsson (Sidney Crosby’s admitted ideal winger) traded to the Penguins, but the “sexy” deal isn’t always the one the makes a team better.

As illustrated above, scoring is not what’s needed for the 2013 Penguins. If Shero can swing a few “smaller” deals for role players who bring the intangibles, the sum of all the parts could equal a Stanley Cup.