The Pittsburgh Penguins and General Manager Jim Rutherford’s inaction has caught up with them. Months of waiting for better options at center, and taking the easy path at the expense of hard choices is now strangling the Penguins season. Look no further than the line shuffling and lack of a legitimate lineup, Thursday night.
The Penguins’ struggles are not a “Cup Hangover” or the result of fatigue. Those are excuses. The Penguins’ struggles are the result of not enough good players. They’ve assembled an ineffective third line, non-existent fourth line, a mistake-prone blue line which makes a lot of money, and a lack of productive left wings.
Now, add a lack of centers to the list.
The Penguins continued their mediocre 2017-18 season with a no-show loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, Thursday. After promising to carry the momentum from the Philadelphia game–read Shelly Anderson’s Thursday column; it’s even better in retrospect–the Penguins again disappointed.
Without a call-up or small deal, the Penguins pressed Jake Guentzel into pivot duty in the absence of Carter Rowney, who is out for four weeks with an upper-body injury.
Guentzel is not an NHL center. The Penguins knew that long before last night.
The idea of Guentzel playing in the middle was first broached at the NHL Draft in June. Head coach Mike Sullivan was dismissive then. Last night, the Guentzel experiment lasted only 10 minutes. That’s when Penguins coaches began double shifting Sidney Crosby with Guentzel on the left wing and Daniel Sprong on the right wing.
In the second period, Guentzel returned to center with disastrous results. Early in the period, Carolina pinned Guentzel’s line in the Penguins zone for over a minute, which began Carolina’s onslaught.
Afterwards, the Penguins’ coaches shuffled the lineup, again. Sheahan was taken from linemates Tom Kuhnhackl and Ryan Reaves, and played a couple of shifts between Carl Hagelin and Daniel Sprong. Then Sheahan took a shift between Dominik Simon and Conor Sheary.
The chaos worsened in the third period.
Will the Penguins go through this torment for four more weeks while Rowney is out? If so, consider their season over.
It is somewhat remarkable. After months of recognizing a deficiency, the Penguins have only four centers in their organization whom they trust in the NHL. Crosby, Malkin, Sheahan, and Rowney.
Now, they’re down to three.
Here is the NHL shift chart from the Carolina game.
Big Game Hunting?
Rutherford reportedly went strong after Matt Duchene before Ottawa acquired the center. Canadian media has also linked Rutherford to Evander Kane of the Buffalo Sabres and Max Pacioretty in Montreal.
Rutherford has chased the big fish, which is laudable, but his ship is headed towards the rocks. The overpayments which opposing teams are reportedly asking is likely going to get worse as the Penguins struggle to stay in the playoff race.
And, the value of some of Rutherford’s players is going down.
Cam Ward: “To be quite honest, it was a relatively comfortable night for myself. I think they’re one of the top-shooting teams in the league and we managed to hold them to 21 shots.”
I’m hearing this a lot from opposing goalies this season when they go up against the #pens
— Vince Comunale (@PGHVC) January 5, 2018
But surely the Penguins noticed before last night they were perilously thin at the most important position? One injury to a fourth line player caused a rippling effect. Imagine what may happen if Crosby or Malkin were injured?
The roster management is inexplicable.
The Penguins played last night without an extra forward in the press box. Had a player become ill or tweaked a muscle in the morning skate or pregame, defenseman Frank Corrado was the only healthy body available.
Yet, the Penguins had an off-day Wednesday and all day Thursday to address the situation but did not.
If the Penguins don’t make a move today to recall one of their minor league centers or a make a minor deal for a pivot, they will go through the same tonight against the Islanders.
There is no benefit to such a gamble, only downside. The comparative cost savings is negligible.
Culimation of Easy Choices
The Penguins had a chance, in the offseason, to address the center position via free agency. Would the Penguins trade Brian Dumoulin for Brian Boyle right now? Sure would, (Dumoulin’s concussion notwithstanding).
They opted to eschew the higher priced center options in order to pay Dumoulin and give full market value (perhaps a little more) to Justin Schultz.
Rutherford punted the hard choice of sacrificing Dumoulin, Maatta or playing hardball with Schultz. The money tied up in the Penguins defensive corps is over $27 million, which makes it the third highest paid in the league.
It is overpaid. The sacrifice to keep the unit together was snagging a third line center on the cheap. They got what they paid for at center, but are not getting what they paid for on the back end.
Now, the Penguins must correct that mistake and add depth up the middle, before they’re able to address the somewhat unexpected problem of top-6 forward scoring.
Suddenly, making it to the bye week within a couple points of a playoff position seems a difficult task. The Penguins path to another Stanley Cup was never going to be easy, but they’ve made it nearly impossible.
**Stick tap to our unofficial photographer, Michael Miller for the somewhat haunting image of Carter Rowney. Follow Michael on Twitter @PensRyourDaddy