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Kingerski: Dubas Mistake, Lesson Learned Crushed Penguins Season



Kyle Dubas, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL Trade rumors

The Pittsburgh Penguins are technically still in the race for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs. A great run over the last 12 games could put the Penguins within shouting distance of the Detroit Red Wings, putting pressure on the young team with many players who have never been in this spot before.

Sure, the Penguins could do that, but realistically, the team obviously never recovered from the heartbreak of losing popular winger Jake Guentzel at the NHL trade deadline. Players thought he would stick around.

President of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas wisely traded Guentzel but, in the process, pulled the rug from beneath the players’ feet.

Since those conversations between Dubas and the team started, the team is 2-9-1, including the no-show 6-0 loss to the Washington Capitals on home ice the night Guentzel was traded.

To be clear, Dubas wasn’t wrong in trading Guentzel, but he’ll want to learn a lesson for future reference: He was wrong with the process and timing.

What if Dubas had put Guentzel on the market last summer during his pursuit of Erik Karlsson? It seems he knew the score then, and a bitter pill is often best swallowed when wrapped in a piece of cheese.

Call it the Calgary Principle. The Calgary Flames lost Johnny Gaudreau for nothing, then learned their lesson by trading Matthew Tkachuk during the summer before his lame-duck year.

Or, what if Dubas traded Guentzel over the two weeks of the bye and All-Star Game?

The Penguins likely could have gotten the same return for Guentzel then. Had Dubas done so at either juncture, it would have given everyone the space to process, vent, and rage, then come back to earth with the season still in front of them. Dubas also would have given himself time to figure out what the team needed to make the playoffs, thereby putting himself in a better buyer’s position to add salve to the wound.

Three or four more wins, and this would be a dramatically different season.

Instead, the problem festered until it may have been the infection that killed the patient.

Dubas’s First Answer Was Correct

Dubas set a few soft deadlines, only to erase them in deference to the team. The first fork in the road was supposed to be the trip to Florida in early December. Dubas walked back those comments made on his team radio show.

Then, he expected to know his direction by the bye week and All-Star break. He deferred using either exit ramp, trying to give the team time to find itself.

He was right the first time. And the second time.

The Penguins GM admitted again this week — though tacitly, not specifically — that players, including Sidney Crosby, were angry about the Guentzel situation. He admitted as much in his post-trade deadline press conference in the same indirect way.

Crosby was, or is, angry that Dubas shipped away the best linemate he’s ever had, thereby gutting the Penguins’ best chance at a playoff spot. Crosby is not wrong. However, neither was Dubas for deciding to add future assets, using Guentzel to acquire a trio of prospects and Michael Bunting for a team going nowhere.

Penguins Process Left No Alternatives

Make no mistake, the Penguins’ roster has significant problems. Their inability to put together a meaningful stretch of well-played games at any point this season should wave like a Camping World-sized red flag. When pushed, the Penguins have crumbled. Dallas humbled them Friday, and it sure seemed in the locker room at the American Airlines Center that even the Penguins know their larger fate.

There has been an immediate and noticeable problem with the team since the early season. Remember the ugly losses in November and December? Remember more in January and February?

The Penguins were never close in the standings. They hovered just outside contention. Good and bad. Bad and good. They were fighting, often against themselves and through the malaise of doubt.

But it wasn’t until the trade deadline approached, when the uncertainty of Guentzel’s future took center stage, that the Penguins absolutely collapsed.

The Penguins had needs that were never addressed. If the players felt hung out to dry, it would be understandable.

Had Dubas followed through with his original intentions — making the same trade, but much earlier — Bunting would have had more time to adjust. Perhaps acquired prospect Vasily Ponomarev would have adjusted to the system and provided a little spark of youth and enthusiasm to the NHL roster.

Dubas would have had time to make more adjustments and trades.

Underscoring the mistake, Dubas said the Penguins and Guentzel’s camp talked last summer but not since. Both he and Guentzel admitted they had no communication until the trade was at hand. In other words, the decision was made last summer. The Penguins needed something, or someone, to help for a playoff push, but by waiting, Dubas strapped himself into inaction before ripping their heart out instead.

Dubas made the same mistake prior GMs made by letting his emotions or loyalty to the Penguins’ core of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang affect his judgment. Had he moved on his preferred timeline, he would’ve had more time to help the team instead of crushing it at the end.

Three or four more wins. Several lessons learned.