The Pittsburgh Penguins are not one of the few elite teams in hockey. Sorry to say. A Penguins shakeup is necessary as the truth has become clear.
Jim Rutherford admitted he was getting close to a roster shakeup, but was giving his current team more time to prove a shakeup isn’t necessary. Unfortunately, it is essential. To hope it isn’t necessary is to deny the fundamentals of a team which possesses a large but tired heart, tired legs and a lack of critical ingredients.
All three are the perfect cocktail for an early summer.
Even as I type this, I can hear the voices of thousands of Penguins fans deflecting truth–they’ll be fine, they won the Cup, Jim Rutherford will make a move, they have Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel is a two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, “we” had a good run and hockey doesn’t matter until April.
If you believe hockey only matters beginning in April, you’re missing most of the book. By April, the story is written, and the possible endings are few (Of course, if you believe only April to June hockey matters you probably spent all week talking about the Patriots). No, after more than 30 games, most General Managers know their team’s capability.
It’s only the believers who don’t like the truth who deny the NHL is taking shape by December.
Tampa Bay and Nashville are well ahead of the pack for good reasons. They’re not paper champions nor are they a surprise; they’re deep teams with four good lines, top defensemen, and good goaltending. They’re both significantly better than the Penguins.
For teams like the Penguins, the Oilers, and the Senators–if the yeast has not risen, its because there isn’t enough. While Ottawa and Edmonton are somewhat surprising, the Penguins fall was predictable.
Rutherford had a poor offseason. He too got caught up in the moment and over-valued his own players, like Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz. He is now limited by salary cap restrictions and big contracts. It is a mistake he now must overcome. However, with any trade not only comes addition but subtraction. Other teams do not judge players like Carl Hagelin or Conor Sheary with hope, they are judged by results. In a shakeup, the Penguins will lose key players in order to gain players they hope are key.
It was avoidable, but this is the current situation.
3rd Cup Problems
Allow to me rehash everything I wrote over the summer (it’s nice to have company finally): The Penguins style and strategy is not only built on speed but center play. A third line center is not a cute accessory like an expensive purse; a competent and productive third center is essential. In June, I wrote–Nick Bonino, Brian Boyle or Bust. Had the Penguins signed Boyle or acquired a similar third center with gravitas, their troubles would be minor, not major.
Rutherford was wise to act early in the season when he obtained Riley Sheahan. The action gave him time to evaluate the move and correct it if necessary. However, the Sheahan reclamation project is more suited to anchor the fourth line than the third and another move is likely necessary.
The Penguins defense is homogenous. The Defense has too many guys who aren’t physical, aren’t offensive defensemen, aren’t shutdown defenders and who are physically average defensemen. Its a unit dependent on Kris Letang to be a great defenseman, and as Letang struggles to work his way back, the group looks porous. It was also porous last year, too.
Oh, by the way, its the third most expensive blue line in the league (yes, I also wrote that in July as we predicted Dumoulin’s value).
Those are the problems we knew.
Empty Scoring Area
More problems have developed. The slot and front of the net have become a forbidden palace to the Penguins who enter it only with a man-advantage. Otherwise, the Penguins shoot mentality has them firing pucks from the rafters. Don’t believe me–look at the Vegas game shot chart, which mirrors the Rangers, Maple Leafs, and Avalanche games. The Penguins are not able to penetrate the center of the ice, nor are they getting seconds chance shots:
Only Patric Hornqvist is a slot machine (see what I did there?). Otherwise, the Penguins have more perimeter players able to create breathtaking plays but unable to win the dirty zone battles.
Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary are assets if they are balanced by guys with a scar on the bridge of their nose and goals to go with it.
Gone are the Penguins secondary group of leaders. Cullen-Kunitz-Fleury. Phil Kessel and Ryan Reaves are having a good time, and fun doesn’t hurt, but fun is just that. The fun doesn’t change behavior or hold uninspired play accountable.
Talk of re-acquiring Matt Cullen may feel good, but its far from a sure bet and it is a lot to ask of a 41-year-old center currently fighting to stay in the Minnesota Wild lineup.
In 1992, General Manager Craig Patrick–among several moves–traded top defenseman Paul Coffey and top winger Mark Recchi for power-forward Rick Tocchet, stay at home defenseman Kjell Samuelsson, and premier backup goalie Ken Wregget.
In today’s world that would be equivalent to trading away Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel. It’s great if it works. If it doesn’t…uh oh. Rutherford needs to improve his team’s third line, revamp the defense, add leadership and find someone who can play in the dirty areas.
No sweat, right?
Jim Rutherford has his hands full. He has earned the benefit of the doubt, but after a tough summer, the benefit of the doubt won’t last much longer. The Penguins truth is evident: They aren’t an elite team this year, and no amount of hope can change that.
Only changes can change that.