It’s time to admit this version of the Pittsburgh Penguins is not Stanley Cup material. Not without significant changes and a few players stepping forward to change the current dynamic.
The listless Penguins are in need of more than a spark. Their penalty killing unit with borderline NHL players has unsuccessfully used the chaos defense in their fall near the bottom of the league rankings. The bottom six has produced precious little offense and there is little recent data to suggest that situation will improve. Ryan Reaves has provided more fisticuffs than hockey prowess on a nearly non-existent fourth line. And, Kris Letang looks like a frustrated player suffering the toll of an endless series of serious and even life-threatening injury.
You’ve seen a great team over the past couple seasons. While hope may spring eternal, only the brightest optimists should see greatness in this roster’s future.
The half-measures of the offseason and early season have put the Penguins behind their competition.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are taking opponents by storm with four deep lines, relentless speed, and solid defense. The Toronto Maple Leafs have struggled with consistency, but can also roll four lines with offensive pop. The New Jersey Devils have found offensive depth atop the Metro Division and the Ottawa Senators with Matt Duchene are lurking.
For the Penguins, even Sidney Crosby is searching for goals.
While some of the Penguins issues are temporary–such as Sidney Crosby’s offensive output–others are not. Until the Penguins are able re-work their current roster to address needs, three players will need to change the Penguins dynamics.
#1 Kris Letang
Letang’s extended scuffling is now a legitimate cause for concern. The defenseman has opened himself to questions of his health and mental approach. He is only human and has had to endure more than most players could imagine.
Letang has taken 10 minor penalties this season, most while the score is tied or the Penguins trail. His frustration has bubbled over.
As a team searching for offensive production, the Penguins need a productive Letang at 5v5. Not only do they need a productive Letang, they need a less harmful Letang. Less defensive lapses, fewer turnovers, fewer penalties, too. Less is more for Letang until he escapes the quicksand.
#2 Justin Schultz
As Letang searches for his game, Justin Schultz must begin to carry more of the blue line offense. To date, Schultz has only five points in 16 games. The $5.5 million defenseman is on pace for only 20 points.
The defenseman made great strides last season to become a more reliable defender, as well as an offensive force. Schultz carried the burden en route to the Stanley Cup, last season. He will need to pick up the slack, now.
#3 Carl Hagelin
Carl Hagelin was once a dominant penalty killer. His work with the Rangers was once a frustration to the Penguins.
Hagelin’s offensive output sharply declined last season, from 33, 35, and 39 points over the previous three seasons (2013-14 to 2015-16) to 22 points last season. The speedy Swede admitted, after the season, he suffered a broken leg which affected his skating. Hagelin said he was not able to get proper push until the Stanley Cup Final.
It showed. Hagelin had his typical burst of speed in the final games of last season, which raised the Penguins forecheck pressure.
It’s time Hagelin raised his game again. Despite playing on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing, Hagelin has just three points in 21 games. Malkin and Phil Kessel have combined for 44 points.
Hagelin isn’t playing in the dirty areas or suffocating opposing defensemen with a forecheck. The Penguins need more. They need the old, annoying, gritty, ever-present Hagelin.
While fans are quick to toss Hagelin’s name in potential trades, Hagelin’s $4 million salary and declining output make him an undesirable trade piece. The Penguins may be stuck with him, for better and worse. Hagelin must turn up the temperature.
The Penguins are a top-heavy team. The aforementioned three players account for nearly $17 million, or 23% of the Penguins salary cap.
No team can afford three players who are a quarter of its payroll to be a drag on production. While Riley Sheahan and Greg McKegg shoulder some responsibility for the Penguins struggles, it is also unfair to expect those players to produce beyond their means.
And no, Daniel Sprong is not, not, not the answer. Seriously, not the answer. I understand why some of you think so. But, we’ll get into that after Thanksgiving… Stuff yourselves well.
Also check out the great work of PittsburghHockeyNow.com’s new writers, the renowned John Perrotto and fan writer Stefan Rice: