Such talent and potential. The Pittsburgh Penguins have everything a General Manager and coach could want. On paper, anyway.
In practical execution, the Penguins are in trouble. The team which won the 2016 Stanley Cup in dominating style is gone. The team which gritted through an extraordinary beating for the 2017 Stanley Cup is done. What is left of those teams is extraordinary talent in the forward ranks which has only a few producers and an expensive blue-line corps which is struggling, at best.
The Penguins lineup holes have been exacerbated by injury. However, even with center Derick Brassard in the lineup, they are in desperate need of a third line center who digs the job the way Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel dig playing together. Brassard is discouraged by the third line role and was ebullient when slotted as the first line left wing.
“I loved it,” he gushed about playing on the Penguins top line.
In Justin Schultz’ absence, the Penguins defense sorely needs a right side defenseman to add offense and carry the puck. The gaggle of bottom pairing left-handers who are better in the defensive zone are all NHL-quality defensemen but they are falling well short when asked for more. The problem will last into March as Schultz is slated to return in February but figures to need weeks to return to form.
Defensive pairs such as Olli Maatta-Jamie Oleksiak have been bad. Same with Maatta-Jack Johnson. And Oleksiak-Johnson. The list is long.
Above all, the Penguins need to realize they are not a fast team, anymore. They are fast, but as PHN written too many times previously, too many others are faster.
New Jersey, New York, and Montreal have exposed the Penguins. Each are less talented teams which took the Penguins lunch money, twice. Yet the Penguins players seem mired in their old way of thinking. It has a little hint of the Dan Bylsma refrain, “We need to get to our game.” The cycle game which utilized the Penguins depth of size and strength has disappeared after making a brief, but successful run last month.
The Penguins inability to maintain good offensive pressure or at least get shots on goal in New Jersey Tuesday had coach Mike Sulivan seething. At different points in his postgame media availability, Sullivan said;
“We had opportunities to get pucks to the net, and we’re looking for lateral plays.” And he said, “We’ve got to put more pucks on the net. And we’ve got to get some blue paint goals. And we haven’t had a lot of blue paint goals…The only way that can happen is if we put more pucks on the net. That will force us to go to the net and then we can bank some in there.”
Mindset & Role Players
Several Penguins players actually called Saturday’s win over Arizona a “statement” win, including goaltender Casey DeSmith. Yes, it seems things have fallen that far.
If beating a lowly Western Conference team to break a five-game losing streak is a statement, then what was the statement losing again to New Jersey two days later? This isn’t 2017-18 when coaches were afraid to go to the whip because they knew the veteran locker room was tired from two years of never-ending high-pressure hockey.
Now, Sullivan is going to the whip but his horse isn’t galloping. GM Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan have every right to be frustrated and concerned. The long offseason and the personnel moves were supposed to cure the ills of sloppy play, forwards’ defensive disinterest, lack of secondary scoring and struggling defensemen.
The Penguins have talents and gifts that few other teams have. Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang are elite. But what of everyone else?
The recent bright spot has been the emergence of the Penguins fourth line. They haven’t scored but for the first time this season it has added offensive pressure. The recalls of Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson added a physical edge, grinding wall play and some net crashing. Centered by Matt Cullen, the trio had several good shifts which led to offensive zone time for the top unit with Sidney Crosby.
Unfortunately, speedy role players Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust have not been found on the scoresheets much at all this season.
Nor has Riley Sheahan, who has only two points in 16 games. Worse, Sheahan is well upside down in goals-for (24 percent) and scoring chances (46 percent).
The Penguins are forcing the rush but teams are getting back to deny the Penguins those opportunities. Instead of grinding out offense, the team stubbornly looks for pretty plays, or as Sullivan called them, “lateral plays.”
Compounding the offensive confusion are defensive gaffes. Again. And defensemen who aren’t naturally puck carriers or good with it.
The Penguins have a lot of raw materials to work with but it’s not coming together. Instead, right now they look like a mess.