As Santa Claus shimmied down the chimney for many Monday morning or tried to kiss Mommy Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a few things on their wishlist to salvage a season that is still teetering on disaster.
Like a little cinnamon in the holiday latte, there is just a little whiff of 2005-06 with this Penguins team. For those who have blocked the memories or are too young to remember Sidney Crosby’s rookie year, former GM Craig Patrick went on an offseason shopping spree.
Patrick was aided by the new salary cap and revenue-sharing models, which gave the Penguins a fresh start and a new chance against the formerly big-spending clubs. It was like the Pittsburgh Pirates waking up one morning and being able to compete with the LA Dodgers. Twenty years ago, the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers had payrolls near $75 million, while the struggling Penguins were in the $20 million range.
Patrick signed a bevy of big-name free agents like Sergei Gonchar, John Leclair, and Ziggy Palffy. Offseason optimism ran amock, and a few even picked the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup (Yes, it was one of my worst predictions ever, but I wasn’t the only one).
Things quickly imploded, and the Penguins finished with the worst record in the NHL.
The 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as that 2006 team, which was a country club with a table of mean girls. Still, the Penguins will need a few stocking stuffers for the second half of the season if they hope to avoid becoming sellers at the NHL trade deadline or, worse, be cast off with the dregs of the Eastern Conference.
3 Gifts for the Penguins
Call it heart, fire, hunger, or desperation. Semantics aside, the Penguins have a bad habit of going through the motions. They expect success but have not had the consistent on-ice work ethic to make it happen. Within the last 11 days, they’ve suffered three awful no-show losses, though they somehow managed to salvage a point against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
Kris Letang heavily criticized the team’s performance after a 3-1 loss to Tampa Bay, in which the scoreboard was far kinder to the Penguins than the game itself. They were never in it. Erik Karlsson and coach Mike Sullivan hammered the team after their humiliating 7-0 loss to Toronto nine days ago.
The team was oddly disengaged in a 4-3 shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens within that time, too. Only Crosby and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic saved their Christmas hams that night. If the team was to be honest with itself, they were terrible in Ottawa, too. Only a desperate third period earned them a point.
The Penguins don’t bring that urgency, and their barely above .500 record proves it. If Santa can bottle that consistent desire, the Penguins would be better for it.
2. Middle Six Help
The Penguins top line with Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust, now Rickard Rakell, has been the Penguins’ offense. Evgeni Malkin has fallen into a slump with nine points in 15 games. Reilly Smith has only four points in those games. Lars Eller, Drew O’Connor, and Radim Zohorna rarely appear on the scoring logs.
Eller is a defensive center, but O’Connor and Zohorna are supposed to bring the frankincense and myrrh for some third-line contributions. However, Zohorna is pointless in 14 games. O’Connor scored his third goal of the season Saturday during that furious third period comeback, but he has nine points in 32 games.
Both O’Connor and Zohorna have far more talent than their numbers indicate. They need to produce, or president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas will need to act.
Prospect and 2019 Penguins first-round pick Sam Poulin returned from injury last week. He scored two goals and has four points in his first three games since leaving the lineup in late October. One wonders if he’ll be in the Penguins lineup before the end of 2023.
Smith is a 50-point winger capable of far more, too. The Penguins cannot afford a vanishing act in the middle of its lineup.
3. Blue Line Stability
Coach Mike Sullivan recently shuffled the Penguins’ D-pairs, moving Marcus Pettersson to Kris Letang’s side saddle and Ryan Graves to Erik Karlsson’s left.
Pettersson is having a great season. Graves, who signed as a free agent on July 1, is not.
“I think there’s been some good and some not-so-good. I think it’s a little bit of a mixed bag,” Sullivan said of his defensive pairings Saturday morning. “We’re still trying to sort through that. We’ll probably have more changes. I don’t think (they’re) etched in stone by any stretch. And I think, you know, I think Todd moves them around during the course of the game as well.”
More changes coming.
The third pairing has similarly been in flux. Ryan Shea earned a 22-game run on the third pair before being waived and sent to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. P.O Joseph has been in and out of the lineup. Injuries and ineffectiveness have affected Chad Ruhwedel, who returned to the Penguins’ lineup last week after missing weeks with an upper-body injury. Waiver wire pickup John Ludvig has brought an element of physicality and a willingness to fight, but he, too, has been shaky lately.
While Graves has recently been the lightning rod for public consternation, the unit’s overall results have been an unsettling team factor. Turnovers, missed coverages, inconsistency, or soft play have been far too frequent companions.
Focusing on the second wild card, the Penguins are five points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and four behind the Carolina Hurricanes, the first team out of the playoff standings. The Penguins have three games in hand on Tampa Bay and two in hand on Carolina, meaning if the Penguins won those games in hand, they would be in a playoff position.
The shootout win over Carolina on Thursday was by far the most important win of the season and the first time the Penguins won a big game in a long time. It made the subsequent stinker against Ottawa only more bewildering.
As the Penguins get a short reset to what has been a sideways first three months of the season, finding a few solutions internally would greatly improve the Penguins’ postseason chances, or perhaps they’ll find a few gifts under their tree Monday that will finally sort the chaos which has been the first 32 games of the Penguins season.