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Penguins Problems: It’s Not Talent, It’s Defense & Self-Perception

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Rickard Rakell, NHL trade

A few things have emerged. Perhaps they existed, perhaps they’ve developed, or maybe just been exacerbated as the Pittsburgh Penguins careen towards the playoffs.

Four straight losses before they rallied to beat the Nashville Predators in OT.

The common themes will run through the remainder of the Pittsburgh Penguins season and the playoffs. The Penguins have areas and issues to clean up within their own game. Lately, they tend to lose their assignments in defensive transition, otherwise known as poor trackback. The Penguins also fed the New York Rangers transition game with puck management issues, and at times they seemed intent on proving they were faster than New York instead of grinding away.

“There are little things that we have to improve. (Things that we’ve) learned, and I think they’re all correctable,” Kris Letang said after the Penguins’ loss to the Rangers on Thursday.

Tracking back, losing assignments, and ill-timed turnovers are correctable. Those seem to have popped up in greater numbers lately. Or at least they’re finding the back of the Penguins net more often.

“I feel like the team has played pretty hard. We haven’t got the result, but we just got to continue to stay with it,” Sullivan said on Thursday. “That’s the message that we gave the guys after the game. You know, we’ve got to learn through each experience…”

How Opponents Are Attacking the Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have talent. That’s not an issue. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ top-six forwards can hang with any team in the league. Rickard Rakell balances the second line and gives the Penguins a genuine 1-2 punch. Evan Rodrigues has shown recent signs of life, including another point and plenty of shots on Saturday. He had a few more good chances on Sunday, which significantly improves the Penguins’ top nine.

So, what’s the problem?

1: Getting Attacked

The Colorado Avalanche, New York, and Nashville did it differently, but the goal was to prevent the Penguins from getting speed out of their own zone.

After the Penguins clearly won the first period and were flying in their rematch against Colorado, the Avalanche pulled their third forward back. Similar to a left-wing lock. It created traffic in the neutral zone and slowed the Penguins down. Turnovers and mistakes followed. Colorado won.

The New York Rangers used their speed to smother the Penguins’ defensemen. New York was a step quicker, and even without Sidney Crosby and John Marino, it should have been a troubling loss for the Penguins.

Update: I forgot to include Nashville, which hugged the Penguins forwards on the breakout. No separation. No gaps. They essentially dared the Penguins blue liners to beat them, and in the process created turnovers and a slog for 30 minutes.

We’ve got a look at the cards in the deck, and we know how the opponents will attack.

The teams attacked in different ways specific to their strengths, but the results were the same. Teams are feasting on the Penguins’ defensemen.

Sullivan appears to be aware, thus flipping Mike Matheson and Brian Dumoulin a few times over the past few weeks. However, the resulting second pair with Dumoulin and Marino often looks like deer in the headlights.

The advanced stats are awful.

Unless Dumoulin reverses course, his rough season might give Sullivan an impossible choice.

The Penguins’ defensemen may be the key to this year’s playoff success…or failure.

2. Thinking

The Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer the fastest team in the East. They may not even be the most talented. The New York Rangers might clip them on both. The Carolina Hurricanes are probably more than a touch faster. And the Florida Panthers are more talented than everyone.

There’s been a little stubbornness by the Penguins to recognize they aren’t the team that stormed the NHL to the first back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era (and still the only team to do it with successive 82-game seasons played with typical offseasons).

The Penguins were too happy to play on the rush against the Rangers, only to realize those one-off chances are road trip gummy bears to Igor Shesterkin. The Penguins have one even-strength goal in four games against the Vezina-favorite. They have plenty of chances in the slot, but Shesterkin read the play and waited.

He’s outstanding if you haven’t noticed.

It doesn’t really matter which forward lines Sullivan deploys, though that will be a hot topic of conversation should the Penguins lose. But hear it now–that’s the low-hanging fruit for debate because there’s no way to disprove or prove any specific theory, such as Rakell with Crosby or Carter with Malkin.

The Penguins have different strengths against the Rangers than they do Carolina and probably others against Florida.

What the Penguins do well, perhaps much better than their Metro Division counterparts, is play hard in the low zone. Call it the “Sidney Crosby” model. Get the puck low and make the “skating” defensemen fight you for the puck. The Penguins forwards play the game very well because they’re fast and used to playing through the hacks and whacks of playoff hockey.

When the Penguins force the opposition’s defensemen to turn their hips and defend to the end wall, the Penguins are successful. Is there anyone better near the net than Crosby? Bryan Rust isn’t so bad, either.

The Penguins also excel in shot retrieval. In other words–get shots on net and ugly it up. We can definitively say the Penguins have not employed that tactic against Shesterkin.

Opponents will force the Penguins to fight through every obstacle coming out of the defensive zone, but once they get across the red line, they can’t keep believing things are the same as they were.

Simple hockey. Maybe some ugly hockey. Indeed, grinding the Rangers and Hurricanes “skating” defensemen will protect the Penguins’ slowing defensemen.

If the Penguins choose to “just play their game,” they could be “just watching on TV” far too soon.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Katz
Katz
7 months ago

Yes this team , more exact their Coach believes “Just Play”, “Play the right way” , etc. will find success. It’s hubris Willy Loman would envy. Sullivan’s mindset was there in Montreal, the 27th place team. He lost. His stubbornness was there vs the Islanders with Dom Simon getting PP time. He was swept. His tunnel vision was here last year, yes Jarry was bad, but Trotz would have exploited him again even if Jarry was better. They lost again in the First Round. Where were the hard questions? I watched all the Press Conferences and interviews. Cliche answers to… Read more »

Last edited 7 months ago by Katz
Chase Cranson
Chase Cranson
7 months ago
Reply to  Katz

You are correct but management hasn’t been able to get the talent they are to be blamed as well Sullivan has failed because of his decision’s an has been stuck in a mode that is 5 years old last time they won the cup.Nobody believes this team is playoff contender they are a playoff pretender lets hope they they can start the rebuilding process now

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
7 months ago
Reply to  Chase Cranson

Why do people want a rebuild? Waste the final Crosby years? The last rebuild was terrible. I would rather watch a team that makes the playoffs and loses than a team that struggles to win 10 out of 82. If thats what you like, move to arizona, they have a cool bankrupt team that gets to play in a college arena. We got lucky with the last rebuild and got 4 future hall of famers out of it. I doubt they will get lucky like that again. So everyone, please continue to whine about our coach and how everyone is… Read more »

Kris
Kris
7 months ago

Bing-freakin-Go! Rebuild? The fan base is way too spoiled for that. You’ll see quite a few empty seats and the chance of going 3 for 3 and getting someone as great as Crosby and Lemieux again is pretty slim. Let’s ride this horse as long as we can.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
7 months ago
Reply to  Kris

That is what i have been saying. Yes, the stars are aging, management has made mistakes, and they haven’t gotten past the first round of the playoffs for 3 years. BUT they have been making the playoffs and have been good in the regular season. They still have strong leadership in place, Hextall needs to find a way to move some underperforming players out and bring in some newer, younger players if possible. A full rebuild means trading Crosby.

Irish Hammer
Irish Hammer
7 months ago
Reply to  Chase Cranson

Sullivan is a arrogant asshole. He forgot he got fired by Bruins. He’s like Coach Dan and Mike Babcock. Got tremendous talent and win Cups. Now smarter than General Managers. His figure skaters will get smoked again.

Mike Kirkell
Mike Kirkell
7 months ago

Dan, how can– or should– the Penguins adjust to deal with teams pulling a forward high to trap. Way to beat it, within the context of Sullivan’s system, is if you have defensemen with ice in their veins who are willing and able to skate the puck to pressure. The Matheson-Letang pairing certainly can do it. But everyone else is below average in that regard. So, is there some ‘wrinkle’ the Pens could be using with their forwards on the breakout when the Dumoulin-Marino or Petersson-Ruhwedel pairing is out there? Maybe one approach with those pairings and then the typical… Read more »

Mike Kirkell
Mike Kirkell
7 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Unfortunately splitting them doesn’t change the equation. Look at Carolina and New York. Their worst defensemen at skating to pressure are average. The Pens? Dumoulin isn’t anymore. Marino was above average as a rookie. Now? Only glimpses. Petersson and Ruhwedel can sometimes be average but are in a hurry to fire the puck up ice, even with no pressure and when it’s into the teeth of the trap. Friedman, as you allude, actually may be the Pens third best defenseman skating into pressure (not great but usually okay) but Is on a short leash. Personally, I think the Pens need… Read more »

Kris
Kris
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Kirkell

Forwards need to float back a littler closer to their own blue line. We would also need to dump and chase more to force them to work it our from behind their own red line. Sometimes its speed. Other times its just doing the dirty work.

Lisa Nath
Lisa Nath
7 months ago

I know he was just a depth add but what about the defenseman they traded for who is hurt Beaulieu, Might he be a good option when available ?

Mary L
Mary L
7 months ago
Reply to  Lisa Nath

I think Beaulieu was brought in so we could write off his $1.25 million ? Salary on LTIR and give us some cap cushion. He may be around next season if Todd Reardon can work his defenseman whisperer magic. Definitely having a lot of defenseman movement this summer.

Kris
Kris
7 months ago
Reply to  Lisa Nath

Can’t fit him under the cap until playoffs. Then he is basically the “goon” physical defenseman that is going to make it all better. But if he can’t move the puck any better than the current bottom pairing, he’s not going to see the ice unless we are expecting something in the form of fighting in a game. Even then? At best you might see 11forwards/7defenseman one game if we are behind in the series. Then Boyle plays as PK specialist and he is available to go in and “goon” it up I guess.

Pete Hoffman
Pete Hoffman
7 months ago

The Pens need a big bruising D man (or two) that can clean their net. Hex has to make it happen. Until we have that we aren’t going to win playoff hockey. I like our D men as guys but they don’t have the beef to win playoff hockey.

ric jefferies
ric jefferies
7 months ago

Thanks Dan, good analysis. They just seem lost on the rush, not sure of assignments?

Kris
Kris
7 months ago

yeah it’s a shame that Dumoulin is not leading the team anymore in the +/- category. Except he is. Some bad plays, yes, but to say he has completely “lost it” is incorrect and downright wreckless. But don’t let the statistics get in the way of a juicy story.

morslene
morslene
7 months ago
Reply to  Kris

+/-? +/-? Oh, for god’s sake.