Kovacevic: Why Penguins rightly prioritize character ☕


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The Penguins announce their fifth-rounder Saturday in Vancouver. - DEJAN KOVACEVIC / DKPS

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It's been three decades since the Canadiens won their most recent Stanley Cup, and it's been nearly as long since the Nordiques bid au revoir to Quebec. And yet, there remains something uniquely hockey-cool about hockey talk with even a trace of French.

I could easily be referring to the Penguins topping off their 2019 NHL Draft class with two French-Canadian power forwards, Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare. Or even just when Legare responded to a French question about his new employers by rattling off the names, "Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr ... Mario Lemieux!" And when he spoke the latter, he spoke it the way it's supposed to be spoken.

Not going to lie here. It was neat seeing the franchise of Lemieux reclaim a little of that.

And the one that stood out for me in this regard was from this guy you don't know:

Know all those times you skip the video?

Don't with this one. It's nine whole seconds, and it's worth all nine.

His name is Luc Gauthier. He's the team's Quebec scout. He was elaborating on why the Penguins chose Poulin and Legare, two richly similar prospects, and, in doing so, he spoke the following: "That's our philosophy with the Pittsburgh Penguins: Draft guys with character, with skill, with speed."

It came across like a credo. Only through a thick French accent.

Maybe it should be a credo, I thought in the moment.

Seriously, in this summer of Jim Rutherford, Mike Sullivan and pretty much everyone inside and outside the Penguins' world seeking to brand or rebrand the franchise's identity, there it is. Right there in three fist-pumping words:

• Character
• Skill
• Speed

Precisely in that order, too, all other facets being fairly equal.

I wrote at length upon arriving here that skill's always paramount to the Penguins' persona. And the Penguins themselves were the first of this era to generate a championship through sheer speed, setting a bar that others, for better or worse, have chased hard. So let's set aside those two as givens.

"Character" is a word I've been hearing for weeks now, from Rutherford, from others in the front office and even more out here. It's part of the hard push to rediscover the drive, the hunger that contributed to those two recent Cups, arguably as much as all that speed, all that skill. And contrary to some public misperception I sense about this, it isn't about questioning anyone's character, at least not as they explain it. (What fool would question Patric Hornqvist's drive or hunger?) Rather, it's about a collective sense of mission or purpose.

Some of these guys have two rings. A few have three. The city as a whole has five.

So what's the mission or purpose?

Where's the St. Louis-like storyline?

How can that extra edge be shaped?

You know, the one that carried the Blues to glory after 52 years, the one that similarly crested the Capitals and yeah, the one that brought Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang back atop the hockey world in 2016, followed by the relentless push to become the first back-to-back champs in the cap era the next year. There's a team of destiny every year. But somewhere along the way, someone has to define that destiny.

I don't have a hard answer. I'll bet Rutherford and Sullivan don't, either. Or the captain or anyone else in that locker room. But it's got to start, as Rutherford powerfully intimated here, leading up to training camp, and that means it's up to those in charge -- right now --  to start setting that script, even before setting the tone.

Go right ahead and mock me for getting too schmaltzy, too intangible here. I get it. It's never all about rah-rah or common cause. As someone who once covered a baseball team that lost 105 games with 25 of the most awesome dudes I'll ever encounter, I definitely get it.

But this group's still oozing skill, having finished fifth in the NHL in goals, sixth in shots, fifth in power-play percentage. This group's also got much more speed than most seem to concede anymore, as if the acquisitions of Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad never took place.

Hello, Dallas?

Tell me: What's missing?

Well, more than character, to be fair. But we'll never fully find out until the character flaw's fully addressed.

• To that end, on a very related note, extend Sullivan's contract sooner rather than later.

This team is being built around Crosby and other elite talents, but it's still being built in the head coach's image. And if one of the most significant steps to be taken this summer, as Rutherford strikingly offered here, will be to set a hard new course in advance of training camp, that can't happen with the boss on a lame-duck contract. His voice loses all weight, particularly among those who most need to hear it.

Beyond that, I won't waste anyone's time with an argument as to why an extension is deserved.

• Character's a terrific checkmark to use in a draft. Again, the scouting and analytics are all invaluable. But if that man-child reports for work like a Robert Dome or Derrick Pouliot, it's all wasted. That player's got to want to be better. And for those who aren't naturally that way, even the rare few who try to adapt will do so too late. Such is the fleeting nature of a professional athlete's career.

• A general aside: It's become all too common that fans argue from one side of the fence or the other, either the old-school eye-tests or analytics, and there's no Switzerland. I sure hope that fades over time across all sports, as the benefits of all information -- a truly objective approach -- outweigh trying to prove which way is smartest.

My two-pronged proposal for a summit:

1. The eye-test crowd would be locked in a room for an hour with Sullivan and staff for a video sermon on all the little things Dominik Simon does that they love, with accompanying analytics to support.

2. The analytics crowd would be locked in a room for an hour with Crosby and several teammates to hear how much more confidently they performed after the acquisition of Erik Gudbranson. And when that crowd would demand numerical evidence to support the case, Crosby would instead count up all his championships and individual trophies until the hour is up.

• Really like the top two picks ... conditionally. Poulin and Legare both need to get faster. They don't need to become blazers, but they've got to find, being specific, that extra step that's required for separation in the modern NHL.

I brought this up with head scout Patrik Allvin:

Certainly sounds promising. Quickness is easier to add than straight-line speed.

• I've criticized Rutherford so many times for frittering away first-round picks that it only feels right to praise clinging to this one. And for trading up -- three picks, no less -- to move into the third round for Legare. And even for making the most minor trade of all -- seventh-rounder one year for a seventh-rounder the next -- to accommodate Allvin's wish for Finnish defenseman Santeri Airola at 211th overall.

That's how a GM gets the best from his scouts. Trust and value the work they do all year-round.

• Give it up for Ray Shero. He left here with Jack Hughes, PK Subban and whole lot of sudden hope for the Devils to surge back into prominence in the Metro. Bear in mind, New Jersey never should have been that bad this past winter. Wracked by injury, chiefly to Taylor Hall.

To hear Shero tell it, Newark's about to become a destination for fans seeking to see stars:

Gee, can't imagine whatever he might mean:

• Not to be left out, the Rangers left here with Kaapo Kakko and, just before that, Jake Trouba from the Jets. They're a lot less complete than the other two New York-area teams, but their disaster days appear to be done.

• The Devils and Rangers can feel free to plan their parades right after those other noted offseason champions, the Cleveland Browns.

• On that note: Other teams in the Metro getting better doesn't mean the Penguins got worse. They had some things go wrong in the 2018-19 season, but none more so than the maddening lack of caring/consistency. That's not exactly being buried.

• Always happy to leave here. Flying home this morning. Thanks for reading the coverage Dave Molinari and I offered from the floor, with a primary assist back home to Taylor Haase.


[caption id="attachment_846339" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] NHL Draft weekend, Vancouver, British Columbia, June 21-22, 2019 - DEJAN KOVACEVIC / DKPS[/caption]

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