The Pittsburgh Penguins dug themselves a hole which may be deeper than even they realize. The Penguins recently won four consecutive games, and have won six of eight. Yet, if the playoffs began today, the Penguins would miss the chance to defend their Stanley Cup. Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford has moved from explaining he could make a move, to threatening a move to saying the trade market is murky.
Have the Penguins gone from overconfident to unable? Overconfident in their belief a move wasn’t immediately necessary to now unable to address the perilously thin center position? Did they wait too long?
The Penguins currently trail their divisional foe Philadelphia Flyers by one point for the Eastern Conference first wild-card spot. The Flyers have two games in hand which could make the deficit as much as five points. The Penguins are tied with the division rival New York Rangers for the second wild card. The Rangers have one game in hand on the Penguins.
With games in hand, the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes could also be ahead of the Penguins.
That is the depth of the hole. And, the reasons for it had existed since late June when the Penguins learned who they would lose via free agency. Now, the Penguins are treading water with each passing week and giving opponents more time to gain ground or get the jump on the Penguins.
Is everyone done paddling through denial?
It must be evident to everyone the Penguins are a center short of an adequate Cup defense. They may even be a center short of making the playoffs. The market will not give Rutherford a fair shake; the Penguins reward is too high not to make a move and every General Manager will force the Penguins to pay a premium.
Penguins Depth ≠ Streak
Sidney Crosby‘s five straight multi-point games did not coincide with the Penguins streak as much as the Penguins string was the result of Crosby’s streak.
The streak, based on Crosby’s torrid run, underscored the depth of the Penguins roster, or lack thereof.
Following Carter Rowney‘s injury, Jake Guentzel did not record a point from the third line center position, after he was thrust there, beginning January 5. Guentzel also struggled with the responsibilities of the pivot position. So, Crosby pivoted not only the Penguins top line but occasionally the third line, increasing his ice time to nearly 23 minutes per game.
Thursday, the Penguins solution to get Guentzel back to left wing and reduce Crosby’s ice time was 23-year-old ECHL alumnus, Jean-Sebastien Dea. In the two games since Dea drew into the lineup, he has yet to play more than nine minutes, combined.
In other words, the Penguins top six must produce at least three points every night or the Penguins lose. Or, the power-play must net a pair of goals and hope for a couple of points from the top six. As evidence, without multiple points from Crosby, the Penguins have lost two of the last three.
Mike Sullivan: Juggler
The Penguins have gone 5-3 since Carter Rowney suffered a lower body injury, which will keep him out until at least early February.
The Penguins coaches have been forced to juggle the lineup like a street performer wielding a chainsaw and a bowling ball, with an overdue mortgage. Double shifts for Crosby, moving Guentzel in and out of the center spot, shuffling Riley Sheahan up and down the lines, shuffling wingers with different centers…
Rowney, a fourth line center with only four points in 27 games this season, shouldn’t be that indispensable.
Gambling for Offense
The Penguins are playing offense-roulette because they lack depth. They have adopted an activated defense approach to generate more 5v5 offense. Kris Letang, Matt Hunwick, Jamie Oleksiak and Justin Schultz have been crashing the offensive zone.
Perhaps this is why Ian Cole is sitting?
Almost by design, the Penguins are risking odd-man breaks because forwards are not fastidiously covering the defenseman headed towards the opposition net.
It is nearly one month before the trade deadline, and the Penguins find themselves in fierce competition both on the ice and on the phones. Chicago is sinking out of contention in the West–they are now five points out of a playoff position. The Blackhawks have been scouting the Penguins, and perhaps they are the only team which will not hold the Penguins hostage, but they don’t appear to have an expendable third line center.
Otherwise, it is hard to imagine the Penguins escaping the situation without an overpay. If Rutherford does make a deal even resembling a win, build him a statue.
Overconfident or unable, the Penguins need to find a way to address the center position. And, fast.