The state of the Pittsburgh Penguins universe remains fragile on a game-to-game basis. Win one or two, and the sky is blue. Lose a couple, and hellfires of damnation crackle. The vitriolic swings of the Penguins’ outlook have less to do with a wild fanbase and more to do with their performance extremes.
Get embarrassed by Arizona. Comeback for a point against Florida. Shutout Winnipeg.
If the dizzying cycle of inconsistency isn’t enough, now we’re adding to the mix the results of the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, and New York Islanders.
Third place in the Metro Division is the most likely ticket to the playoffs for the three teams, as the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning/Toronto are a handful of points ahead in the wild-card race.
Until the Penguins string together a solid winning streak, they’ll stuck with the dregs of the East, wondering who will put the pieces of the puzzle together first, or at least who will perform slightly better than average.
The Penguins trail the Flyers by five points with four games in hand. They trail the Islanders by one point with three games in hand, and they’re tied with the Devils with one game in hand.
Statistically and on the ice, New Jersey is the greatest threat, but their lack of goaltending remains a festering wound.
3 Penguins Thoughts
1. Oh That Second Line
I initially worried I read too much into coach Mike Sullivan’s comments about Reilly Smith’s return.
“Hopefully, this will give him an opportunity to come in with a refreshed mind, refreshed level of energy, and a forward-thinking outlook,” Sullivan said on Sunday.
The forward-thinking outlook part is what struck me as odd. I’ve never heard Sullivan say that before.
Oddly, the day after Smith visited the White House (Nov. 13) with the Vegas Golden Knights, he began a seven-game scoreless drought and didn’t score a goal in the 12 games that followed. Of course, Smith has two goals in 31 games, but let’s not heap a lion’s share of blame on one player.
Evgeni Malkin is riding the struggle bus, too. Malkin is so good that points follow whether he is playing well or not. However, on Tuesday, the Penguins’ second line was the only trio with a negative ratio of shot attempts and scoring chances.
The fumbled pucks and lack of offensive zone time on Tuesday might signal trouble. Malkin and Smith should be rested and healthy after the lengthy break. One bad game is forgettable. The trend is significant.
And yet the Penguins won. Convincingly.
Yet the criticisms of both are valid.
The solutions are far more complex and might rest solely with the players.
2. Ryan Graves and Erik Karlsson
With Smith, the defensemen make a trio of Kyle Dubas additions still swimming upstream.
President of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has a blue line problem. There’s not much coach Mike Sullivan can do when the raw materials don’t mesh. The Penguins are 47 games into the season, and the incongruence between the defensemen isn’t softening; in fact, it might be worsening.
It’s somewhat unfair, but Graves is the solution. Karlsson isn’t going to change; he could do more with the puck and carrying the game forward, but his defensive zone work isn’t why teams are willing to pay him north of $10 million per season.
They, too, were conspicuous in the negative Tuesday. The pair’s work in the defensive zone Tuesday was especially spotty. On multiple occasions, they vacated one side of the defensive zone, clearing space for uncontested scoring chances. Graves has a habit of drifting away from the net, creating lanes for opponents and allowing scoring chances.
Compounding the backside trouble is the Penguins’ lack of a defenseman reliably capable of top-four responsibility. John Ludvig figures to get a sweater against the Minnesota Wild Friday in place of P.O Joseph.
With respect to Ludvig, Joseph, and Ryan Shea, who remain with the WBS Penguins, they’re third-pair defensemen. Shea and Joseph have played themselves out of the lineup, or to the brink thereof, and Ludvig hasn’t been healthy for a long enough stretch to establish himself or struggle.
And the Penguins won. Convincingly.
Yet the criticisms of both are valid.
3. Mike Sullivan
Even on Winnipeg radio on Tuesday afternoon, I was asked about Sullivan’s job security. The question is out there, but it’s born more of exasperation than specific reasoning.
It’s understandable. Coaches know those questions are part of the deal. When there are no more roster changes to make, then change the coach. But the Penguins aren’t there, nor are they in a bad spot.
There is growing optimism, especially after a shutout win over one of the best teams in the league.
Remember those worries that Sullivan had lost the team? By mid-December, it was a valid question. Cryptic player responses about a lack of commitment or questioning the system were present, though the veteran room never went too far in expressing frustration.
Sullivan and the coaches were pounding those square pegs. Or, at least, it appeared that way. Sullivan pushed back on a recent question about “changing” style to get to the net more often. He believed that after the Penguins were stripped bare by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 17, players began to listen.
Tristan Jarry leads the league with six shutouts. The team game can be–and has more frequently–been successful. Personnel issues aside, the team has shown it can be good. There’s not much more a head coach can do.
Think of the number of changes to the lines, power play configurations, and the change in style.
Could the Penguins get a jolt of energy from changing coaches? Perhaps. Patrick Roy is 2-2-1 in his first five games with the Islanders.
The biggest changes that need to occur to improve the Penguins rest not with Sullivan but with Dubas.