The Pittsburgh Penguins are suffering from an identity crisis.
Their denial is their major flaw and they have only a couple of personnel issues. That’s it. Despite the internet screaming everything from “Fire Mike Sullivan,” to “Play Daniel Sprong,” there isn’t a great laundry list of issues nor are there multiple structural flaws. The Penguins, believe it or not, will be right back into the Stanley Cup picture as soon as they grasp one fundamental tenet: They are a big, strong team with talent and acceptable speed, certainly not the speed team they see when they look in the mirror.
Mirrors can be deceiving when you want to see something or…don’t want to see something.
When the Penguins finally embrace their new identity, like Bruce Banner accepting he is the Incredible Hulk, the rest of the league beware (that was for you, Stan Lee).
The Penguins are too old and not fast enough to run with the kids any longer. They set the standard of the new NHL speed game and a couple dozen teams have copied their formula while they added bulk because they were the recipient of an unsustainable beating en route to the 2017 Stanley Cup.
“Speed has to play heavy too, or you can’t win now,” said a professional scout to Pittsburgh Hockey Now.
The Penguins have in short spurts wrapped their arms around their potential. They grounded down and pounded the Toronto Maple Leafs with hard cycling, five-man defensive efforts, and heavy play on Hockey Night in Canada in late October. That was the start of their four-game Canadian road trip which stands as the last time the Penguins won consecutive games. Or beat an Eastern Conference opponent.
On Nov. 6, Mike Sullivan said this:
“It starts with a certain attitude. When we have a swagger to our game, I think we’re a real good hockey team,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “And the last couple of games we haven’t had that. What are the reasons for it? I’m trying to figure that out.”
The Penguins as a team have not yet come to grips with what their coach is telling them: Shoot the puck. Play simple, straightforward hockey. And be defensively responsible.
In the last five games since Zach Aston-Reese’s arrival, the Penguins fourth line has provided offensive pressure. Matt Cullen and Aston-Reese have been on the forecheck and in the offensive zone because they’re playing simple hockey. And they popped a couple of even strength goals against Ottawa, Saturday by simply winning puck battles and getting the puck to the net.
“Maybe just putting the puck at the net and make it a little bit nasty out there,” said Kris Letang, Saturday.
It doesn’t seem difficult and perhaps therein lies the problem. Players like Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have not embraced the simple game. Lateral plays and turnovers have denied the Penguins scoring chances just as they have given opponents great scoring chances.
The Penguins losing largely rests on their identity crisis. Nothing more. The PHN Blog noticed similar issues.
Unfortunately, internet heat and groupthink have led too many to scream for Daniel Sprong beside Sidney Crosby as if NHL ice time doesn’t count as a test of things learned unless it’s beside Crosby. Dominik Simon was given the same tests as Sprong and passed. The Penguins are waiting for Sprong to do the same. When he proves he’s learned the basics, he’ll get another shot. No sooner.
And sadly on July 1, the internet decided it hated Jack Johnson because his Corsi is typically under 50 percent. So, every bobble or even being on the ice when others make a mistake is justification for silly statements. Johnson tends to his own zone very well, clears the crease and his hits leave a mark. His pairing with Letang has provided the Penguins with a dynamic shutdown pairing with great offensive potential. It’s actually one of their strengths, right now.
The next hockey person to counter either of the above would be the first. And when the Penguins learn their true identity, players like Johnson will be at the forefront. Actually, Sprong has a solid frame and could prosper in that game, too.
No, the Penguins biggest personnel issues rest on their third line. Or lack thereof. Derick Brassard doesn’t seem to jive with third line duty, even though he isn’t asked to do anything differently, his decreased offensive zone starts and second power play unit time (before his injury and that to Sidney Crosby) didn’t excite him.
Nor has Riley Sheahan produced much of anything as a fourth line center, as a fourth line left-wing or third line center. As a third line center, getting only 25 percent of the scoring chances was too common for Sheahan.
One must wonder if Teddy Blueger is on speed dial. The young center was exciting in training camp as he zipped from side to side and hustled after every loose puck like it was salvation.
And the Penguins suddenly have an issue with Evgeni Malkin who is losing his battle with frustration. Penalties, turnovers and bad plays are piling up. At the same time, Phil Kessel has played some of his worst hockey since late last season. The combination of the Penguins stars downward play combined with Sidney Crosby’s injury are a lethal combination, too.
The Penguins defense is also missing a piece. Too many left-handed, naturally left side defensemen and they’re missing a right-handed, or natural right side d-man who can move the puck, carry it through the neutral zone and provide a little offense. Johnson and Jamie Oleksiak are better on the left and better defending their own zone with a heavy dose of thump than they are pushing offense. That’s not a slight, it’s praise but the Penguins are being forced to use players out of position in the absence of Justin Schultz until February or March.
Oh, what to make of Matt Murray. The big netminder is lost.
When the Penguins exerted effort in the defensive zone, Murray looked good. When the Penguins are performing their free skate routine to the music of Celine Dion, Murray looks terrible.
First and foremost, Murray needs help from his teammates on the ice. He needs a little shelter to regain his confidence and swagger, which is undeniably gone. Second, Murray needs to get big in the crease, again. He has been shrinking, just like his confidence.
Casey DeSmith will not continue to post a .940 or similar save percentage this season. That’s just not happening.
But cycling back to the top, a simple game will help fix these ills, too. The Penguins have everything within their grasp. It is simply a matter of acceptance and simplification. Letang said it best, Saturday.