Somewhat surprisingly, Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford has work to do. The Penguins have effectively lost four straight and lost the games in lackluster, no-show fashion. They have scored just six goals in the past four games and a couple of those came in garbage time. Every team in every season goes through such slumps but if the Penguins choose to ignore this, they will be missing the glaring reasons which have allowed teams to beat them for most of the season.
Their bottom-six is a punching bag. Their defense is a poor mix of left-handed talent without Justin Schultz. Their second line is emotional and easily frustrated. And, as this writer has been printing for six months, the Penguins are no longer able to rely on a superior speed game but have not yet accepted this fact as a matter of principle.
The former is a point on which others are finally coming around.
13 games are enough of a sample size to begin making judgments. The four-game Canadian road trip now stands as the anomaly, not the norm.
“It starts with a certain attitude. When we have a swagger to our game, I think we’re a real good hockey team,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “And the last couple of games we haven’t had that. What are the reasons for it? I’m trying to figure that out.”
Swagger is earned. Not conjured. Memories are nice. Confidence is born of knowledge. What were considered strengths for the Penguins, and things they considered strengths are being shown as weaknesses.
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Injuries / Defense
The injury to the right-handed Schultz looms large and perhaps much larger than the Penguins want to admit. The Penguins have third pairing talent trying to play the right side on a second pairing. Jack Johnson, Jamie Oleksiak, Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel. All are competent defenders in their own right but none are meant for that primetime duty.
PHN has inquired with Oleksiak, Johnson, and Riikola about the differences of playing the right side in that high profile slot. All have shrugged off the differences. Oleksiak said the biggest difference was, “You can get a one-timer off a little quicker.”
It seems much more than that, in the Penguins system which has come to rely on offensive contributions from talented right-siders. Olli Maatta’s sub-par play has also hamstrung the Penguins as he is a top-four defenseman. Or, was supposed to be.
The Penguins defense is unbalanced and the remaining puzzle pieces are NHL caliber but don’t fit well together.
The injury to center Derick Brassard has also pressed fourth liners into third line duty. The Penguins have a plethora of fourth line talent. They don’t have a second third line center. Riley Sheahan has favor among the coaches, but his skill set does not jive with things the Penguins want to do, just as create offense on the rush and transition.
Even with Brassard, the Penguins third line was not productive. Circle this as a primary need to address for Penguins GM Jim Rutherford.
Depth is positive only when the players are able to produce. The Penguins depth forwards have thus far been absent. PHN broke down the numbers of the bottom-six forwards, yesterday (Read it here). They have not pulled their weight.
One factor for the fourth line stumbles–Daniel Sprong. Square peg in a round hole. And no that doesn’t mean Sprong should be playing on the Penguins top line as so many fans have clamored. That means he’s a raw minor league player dropped into the NHL lineup because the Penguins are afraid to lose him.
One quick move to add some spark would be the recall of Teddy Blueger or Zach Aston-Reese. The Penguins need some competence in their bottom six, and they need it quickly.
They also need a spark.
The Penguins lack balance, in part because Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin are concentrated. When things are going well, those two make it rain. When things go sideways, they make you cry.
Things I’ve seen in the room and on the ice recently, lead me to believe Kessel is dealing with a minor lower-body injury. He was a short participant in the Monday skate after taking the day off Sunday.
The Penguins have not found anyone able to generate offense on the third line. Kessel is a player who excels at scoring beside ho-hum centermen. Last season, he was able to generate more offense than anyone ever has beside Riley Sheahan. Not unrelated, Patric Hornqvist was dominant on Malkin’s right wing.
Sullivan’s “attitude” and “swagger” are sometimes derailed by the Malkin-Kessel forces, as they get frustrated by opponents. Live by the Malkin-Kessel, die by the Malkin-Kessel. Perhaps the team will improve if they decide to see other people.
“Work together” was the phrase used by Patric Hornqvist and Mike Sullivan; the Penguins have had too many one-and-done offensive series. One player gets a shot and the other team transitions to offense on the Penguins.
The Penguins were dominant when they used their size and strength advantage with the cycling game. They held the puck. They pressured opponents. The Penguins are no longer successful with the speed game which includes offense in transition. They cannot outskate other teams because other teams, especially like New Jersey, Toronto, New York, have caught up.
Other teams now have three pairs of defensemen who are able to get back, too. And, most importantly, other teams fastidiously get back against the Penguins to prevent the Penguins rush and speed game.
Before the Penguins get their swagger, they need to come to grips with their identity. It just isn’t that blazing speed team with won the 2016 Stanley Cup, even if that’s who they see when they look in the mirror (Just ask those of us past 40 if we see the old man staring back or the young man we feel inside).
A sports team must understand their strengths. Then their identity and swagger will return.
A few tweaks from Rutherford wouldn’t hurt, either.