I’ve been MIA for the better part of the season with my analysis of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Part of it is a busy home life centered on a growing two-year-old daughter, leaving little time to write. Part of it is a busy professional life forcing me to miss parts or all of many of the Penguin’s games to date. And part of it is a lack of motivation to write about a team that was flying high in first place despite missing several significant players.

Yeah, you read that last tidbit correct. I’m more inclined to find motivation to write when the Penguins are struggling than when everything is peaches and cream. I think it’s human nature to be more vocal about the negatives than the positives.

Still, the direction of this team is concerning – and whether this piece is written out of my desire to vent my frustrations or my passion to share my opinions is irrelevant. This piece is being written, and hopefully will be consumed.

With all that said, how can’t a fan of this team be concerned? As I wrote last evening, the Penguins are falling into a pattern that has resulted in embarrassing choke jobs in most, if not all, of the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

They’re easy to defend, they’re easy to take off their game, and, as the great fans over at the LetsGoPens.com message board are discussing, they’re mentally weak.

That last point is quite interesting, really, and could very well be the root of all their problems.

When the tough gets going, these Penguins tend to crumble. Play them physical and they retaliate and take penalties. Score goals on them and they get frustrated and take penalties. Defend them effectively and they sulk and take penalties.

The moral of the story is that they don’t seem to rise above the situation and prove themselves worthy of defeating an opponent who gains an upper hand one way or another. Instead, they fall apart and tend to embarrass themselves.

Think I’m making this up?

Look back to the 2012 playoffs when they were ousted by Philadelphia. The Flyers bullied the Penguins throughout the year, taking the season series 4-2, and at one point seeing the coaches standing at the ends of their benches jawing at one another.

When the playoffs began, the Flyers put away the thuggery, but had apparently already planted a seed in the collective head of the Penguins. In a perfect example of role reversal, the Penguins became the thugs and the Flyers became the focused team.

The series was a joke, and the Penguins were the orchestrators. They fell apart based on a season’s worth of being bullied and were allowed to be taken off their game by a lower ranked team.

Still don’t buy into it?

Look back to last spring when the Penguins were utterly embarrassed by the Bruins. Boston came into the series having scouted the Penguins thoroughly and knowing precisely how to defend the big stars. The result was a two-goal effort for the entire four-game sweep.

Say what you want about each series. The Penguins were the better team in both, yet lost in magnified ways. Against the Flyers, they looked like sore losers. Against the Bruins, they looked like defeated children.

As was mentioned in the LGP thread, coach Dan Bylsma is top-notch at what he does, and his reputation around the league (and world) as one of the game’s best is merited. But the Penguins appear to be a mentally weak team in need of someone to toughen them up.

I don’t think Bylsma, considered by most to be a player’s coach, is the right man for the job.

Respected LGP member shafnutz05 wrote, “I am definitely concerned that 2010-? is going to be looked at as a ‘Lost Decade,’” and I completely agree.

With each passing year we see the Penguins roster as an unbelievably-talented group of hockey players. And yet, each passing year we see them underachieve in the playoffs.

It’s true that there are 30 teams in the NHL, all of which have a deep-rooted desire to win. It’s also true the just one boasts a one-two center combination the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis donned the skating penguin sweaters in the 1990s.

I don’t expect a Stanley Cup each year. But I do expect such a talented team to put forth full effort and not be embarrassed by any opponent, let alone those ranked lower than them through a full season.

When Bylsma took over the Penguins in early 2009, the team had outgrown disciplinarian coach Michel Therrien, who is known for his stellar work developing young, impressionable players. They needed a new message in the locker room. They needed to stop being scolded and to start being encouraged.

The encouragement Bylsma brought to the table, along with a combination of his and Therrien’s systems, propelled the Penguins to a Stanley Cup victory – the third in team history, the first of what many felt would be a good number during the prime years of the careers of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

But here we are four-plus years later with just one Conference Final appearance and no additional Stanley Cups to show for all that skill.

At some point – and quite possibly very soon – Crosby and Malkin, along with other key players, such as James Neal and Kris Letang, will reach and surpass their “prime.” When that happens, the probability of them leading the Penguins to a Stanley Cup victory will decrease drastically.

If they don’t win in the present, how can we expect them to win in the future, with an aging roster?

Bylsma needs to get tough on his players or general manager Ray Shero needs to find a coach who will.

It’s easy to point to this veteran-laden roster and suggest that a disciplinarian like Therrien might make waves and do more harm than good. But the 2013 Penguins appear to be heading in the direction of the late 1990s and early 2000s Penguins whose locker room was described as having a country club atmosphere.

The players ran the show, and we all know that they have nothing to show for it.

If this group of players can’t find success playing for a world-class, yet friendly coach, it’s time they seek out someone who will make them realize that hockey isn’t always fun and that they need to toughen up or risk being labeled as career failures.

And that’s exactly how the careers of Crosby and Malkin will be labeled if they retire with just one Cup despite being surrounded with so much talent.

Now is the time to “salvage” this first place team, as strange as that statement might sound. Don’t confuse this with a call to action to fire Bylsma, but rather a call for change.

Maybe that change comes in the form of players holding one another more accountable for their actions – or inactions.

Maybe that change comes in the form of a fierier Bylsma who gets tough on his players.

Or maybe that change comes in the form of a new coach known for a demanding approach.

Whatever it is, status quo won’t do. We’ve seen the results before, and we’ll see them again.