The injuries, Pittsburgh Penguins trade rumors, necessary help, and the Penguins immediate forecast are connected in some ways even if the locker room may not want to admit. In one of those attempts at a story which fell flat, PHN asked many of the newer Penguins players about jelling, chemistry and how those factors affect performance.
We did so before the Penguins locker room more closely resembled a M.A.S.H. unit, but the room generally rejected the idea of jelling as one of the factors for the Penguins initial struggles. Newly acquired winger Dominik Kahun who is a German native perhaps offered the best response to the PHN question.
Kahun asked, “What is jelling?”
Fair enough. Kahun’s slight language barrier led to that response but it wasn’t much different from other responses. Players and coaches are allergic to excuses and the idea of new players being an impediment is the type of reasoning that would excuse subpar performances.
“It shouldn’t. We had all of training camp,” was Erik Gudbranson’s reply.
Yet after three games, the Penguins effort has been inconsistent, and so have the basics of their game such as breakouts and defensive coverage. After chatting with hockey folks outside the Penguins organization, yes, jelling and cohesion are a thing. Teams going through it can’t admit it, but it can take 10-15 games. Sometimes longer.
Especially when four of the top-nine forwards are out with injury.
Nine Defensemen / Penguins Trade Rumors
The rash of injuries has bought time to deal with the salary cap issue, but also taken away the Penguins ammo. The unbalanced Penguins roster with nine defensemen makes sense under two scenarios. First, Marino surpassed both Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola on the depth chart and the Penguins expected to lose Ruhwedel or Riikola if they tried to pass either through waivers. Riikola seems likely to be claimed, but Ruhwedel not so much.
The second scenario is GM Jim Rutherford expected a Penguins trade to include a top-six defenseman. TSN reporter Bob McKenzie’s little nugget during the Insiders segment Tuesday night included Erik Gudbranson’s name. It’s not the first time it has occurred, but it is the first time Gudbranson was mentioned beyond mere speculation.
The Penguins desperately need help. With the currently healthy roster, they are in trouble. The best three remaining forwards are Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev and perhaps Zach Aston-Reese. That second line won’t scare anyone. Patric Hornqvist may return much sooner than expected after he hobbled off the ice Tuesday night, but the second line still lacks skill.
Just as the Penguins lost all leverage as they attempted to trade Phil Kessel, the current roster decimation means rival GMs will make it tougher on the Penguins to do business.
Also consider, GMs almost steadfastly use the first 10-20 games to see what their team is going to be, then begin to discuss changes. That is why early-season trades are so rare. However, this year has already broken the mold on several fronts, and October hockey is no longer the defacto warmup it once was. Loser points and parity mean playoff spots can slip away in October and November.
The St. Louis Blues were lucky last season. If the Western Conference were not painfully mediocre, they would not have made the playoffs. Tampa Bay slept through the first few months in 2016-17. They may have been the best team in the league over the final two months of the season but couldn’t catch the playoff teams.
The old tier system which posited hockey before US Thanksgiving is a warmup. At Thanksgiving, teams begin to adjust and tighten up. Beginning at Christmas, teams begin to play their game with some intensity and by January, things are set. The points system has negated that thinking though dogma has been slow to catch up. Hockey is finally waking up to the harsh reality that October matters.
And so the Penguins cannot afford a terrible October unless they want to chase the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and maybe the New York Rangers.
Head coach Mike Sullivan strong hinted on Tuesday night the Penguins would resolve their roster logjam, “Those are decisions that Jim (Rutherford), our coaching staff and the hockey ops will make over the next few days,” he said. “We’re well aware of the number of games we’re playing here. Our intent was to play seven defensemen (Tuesday), but probably not (Thursday), for obvious reasons. We’ve got a number of games coming up and we’re well aware of the schedule.”
Of course, that was before Sullivan confirmed two more forwards were out including Alex Galchencyuk who was placed on IR.
Coming Full Circle
The Penguins do not have enough forwards at the AHL level who are yet NHL capable. Marino looks increasingly like he could be a top-six option on the blue line, which makes a few names expendable. Coming full circle, Gudbranson’s name should be used only as a last resort. Gudbranson is the third right-handed defenseman and primary Penguins protector. Those are two reasons he is more integral to the roster than Johnson, who is one of four left side defenders, and Marino is pushing for that spot.
However, the lost leverage means a Penguins trade involving Johnson will be more difficult because the Penguins have specific needs.
Side note, why in the world hasn’t anyone snagged Josh Ho-Sang from the New York Islanders? Surely there is some team about to dress a few AHL players in their lineup anyway. Anyhoo…
A Penguins trade is unlikely because they need one and because of the time of year, but their blue line is bursting with options including Marino who should get a good look as the Penguins try to gel and save an already difficult season.
The Penguins are never dull.