That’s enough. Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic lamented not getting that extra bounce. Captain Sidney Crosby spoke regretfully of not converting one more chance when the Penguins had momentum in the first period. And the Penguins locker room seemed to feel that was the problem.
No, the problems are far deeper.
Despite the nearly 50% roster turnover (10 of the 22 players are new), the script has remained the same as the dreary 2022-23 NHL regular season. The Penguins are mistake-prone. The Penguins don’t finish enough chances. And the Penguins are losing too many games.
But with a roster this good, why?
The only tangible answers are the intangibles.
External frustration and bewilderment are growing, and as such, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is increasingly the target of frustration. It’s understandable and comes with the territory of being 2-4-0 with three straight head-scratching defeats on the heels of missing the playoffs for the first time since George W. Bush was President. The Penguins’ road ahead is no easier with the 2022 Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche on deck, followed by the Ottawa Senators, who view the Penguins as the dragon they must slay to make the playoffs.
The Penguins could easily be 2-6-0 before Sunday, and Sullivan’s seat would appropriately be warmed.
Yet, for all of the roster turnover, the Penguins’ on-ice performance is far too similar to the unsuccessful past season. President of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has more work to do, and changes could be, should be swift.
Dubas has maximized the waiver wire, plucking Jansen Harkins and John Ludvig. Harkins flashed potential but didn’t work out in his first go-round. He’s now with the WBS Penguins. Ludvig had a physical start to his NHL career Tuesday. He was aggressive in the neutral zone, several times stepping forward to disrupt the Dallas Stars’ rush successfully. He was physical but was knocked out (or nearly knocked out) when he threw a big hit on the oncoming Radek Faksa at center ice.
The depth pickups were nice, but there remain a few problems with the Penguins roster.
Where is the energy line or spark plug?
Noel Acciari was to be that type of player, but he’s been saddled with the extra responsibilities of playing fourth-line center because the aging Jeff Carter cannot fulfill that role. In the third period, Acciari and linemate Matt Nieto had what might be their best period of the season as they got after the Dallas defensemen, created a couple of turnovers and some offensive zone time.
However, Carter was not really a part of the action despite being present.
It’s time to give Carter the tap and the hard conversation. It’s time to free Acciari to do what he does really well: play a crash-bang style on the forecheck and separate the puck from opposing defensemen.
A roster without a fourth line that can defend well or create some momentum or at least slow the opponent’s momentum is like a foot without toes. The sea change in any game is palpable when the fourth line pins the other team in the offensive zone. The Penguins don’t get that, and Carter’s game is no longer NHL quality. Worse, his effort appears to be lacking on some shifts.
The Penguins’ third line is showing some signs of life with Radim Zohorna. He and Drew O’Connor have a solid chemistry, and Lars Eller fits it well. Eller is winning faceoffs by the barrel, creating potential puck possession. The lesson of change could be applied to the fourth line.
The Penguins’ top six are still creating a healthy amount of offensive chances. Yet, something seems off with Sidney Crosby. His line is not dominating and has been about even or even behind their opponents in scoring chances in a majority of the games.
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Veteran “Perspective”
Against Dallas, the Crosby line had an 8-5 chance advantage but were even with one goal on each side. Crosby’s line was outchanced against St. Louis and yielded two goals. Crosby was well above the median against Detroit but below it in the win over Calgary.
It’s a microcosm of a team-wide problem. The yeast in the bread just isn’t rising.
Dubas seemingly did enough to flip the roster and provide the existing framework with enough materials to change course. Yet, the course is thus far unchanged, and it cannot be pinned on jelling or faltering newbies.
Erik Karlsson and Reilly Smith have been as good or better than expected. Eller is getting better with each game and has done his job.
The intangibles. Energy. Passion. A need to win that lasts for more than several minutes seems to be missing. The team can be great for a period, but not two, and certainly not three. They can have outbursts and stretches but are unable to quell an opponent’s pushback. For example, the first period against Dallas and the third period against Detroit.
One wonders if a small change can have a big spark. Could a peppy fourth line fix all that ails? Not all, but someone or something to change the game with a good shift would go a long way. A grind line to take the pressure off Crosby, instead of adding to it, would do wonders.
The Penguins locker room feature that we routinely do was perhaps more important on Tuesday than most before it. With a season threatening to spiral out of control before it begins, with dark storm clouds quickly forming on the horizon, the locker room had a certain defiance or denial.
The “mad as hell and not going to take it” mentality that is probably needed seems tempered by age and experience. The Penguins have 11 players who are 30 or older, but just four are 26 and younger (that number could be three, pending the prognosis of Ludvig).
Good teams struggle, but not many start 2-4-0, and they definitely don’t begin the season 2-6-0.
The panic and desperation that might be called for are replaced by a veteran perspective. The exuberance that becomes contagious is instead veteran chill. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ intensity has been present but fleeting, and it’s not a coincidence.
Perhaps changing that perspective would be the best change of all.