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Kingerski: Penguins Core, Needed Dubas Correction



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby

The Pittsburgh Penguins are turning toward the bitter reality of playing out the remaining string of games with nothing to play for but pride, personal accomplishments, and jobs for next season. If there was any doubt about the shortcomings of the 2023-24 Penguins team, they were confirmed en masse as the team took a commanding 4-0 lead over the Colorado Avalanche only to choke it away in the biggest squandered lead of the season.

The disappointment was different Sunday. It was no longer about the widening gap of the playoff race but the disgust of continuing failure and the inability to stop it despite earning a 4-0 lead.

Through the course of travels and a few hundred thousand words of reporting and analysis, we’ve tried to analyze the team as critically and objectively as possible without favor to the team or the fist-shaking of social media.

However, there are a few things to which I’ve alluded or left unstated, and two specifically go to Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas’s coming decisions and past philosophy.

Penguins Opinions

1)  The Penguins’ core, including Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, isn’t enough anymore, not on the ice and not in the room.

How did management not see the Penguins were broken?

Hidden in the context of the multiple first-half questions about jelling and adjustment was the implication that things were not well. Beyond Ryan Graves’s subpar season or Erik Karlsson’s somewhat muted campaign was the idea the Penguins lacked the internal gumption necessary to rise to their challenge.

There is less character and less leadership in the room.

Lars Eller is perhaps the conscience of the room, and Bryan Rust is a blood-and-guts leader, but the team needs more still. There is a lack of leadership, a lack of fire, and a lack of heart in the collective.

Too many look to Sidney Crosby to do everything, from leadership to scoring.

Did Karlsson throw off the dynamic that much? No, because the Penguins’ bread lacked yeast going back to the second half of last season. They’ve failed to seize opportunities, gifted or earned,

Dubas papered over the shortcomings with Karlsson, but the improved analytics didn’t change the underlying realities.

For Dubas to effect serious change for next season, two of the three core members must become complementary players. Finding core pieces isn’t cheap or easy, so the team may need an abundance of complementary players to fill the void. Or Dubas will need to clear more salary and throw it at another potentially core player.

2) Dubas’s Construction: Too Many Numbers, Too Little Guts

In addition to the players able to carry the responsibility of the Penguins with Sidney Crosby, role players willing to play in the dirty areas and capable of scoring are essential.

The Penguins are soft. This chart says it all.

I discard many advanced stat arguments. You know, like the ones that show the Penguins should be a top-five team in the NHL. Anyone who watched more than two Penguins games this season would find that laughable. I like empirical on-ice arguments, and so Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz dropped the bomb on the Penguins Friday.

They’re losing both net-front battles. Coach Mike Sullivan has admitted his team doesn’t get there in the offensive zone, and they need more net-front contact in the defensive zone. Players talk about it, too.

That part is no secret. Again, we go back to roster construction.

Exactly who did the Penguins expect to win these battles? Did the Penguins expect Marcus Pettersson and P.O Joseph to suddenly morph into grisly defenders with permanent cuts on the bridge of their noses and smiles without teeth?

Did they expect Rickard Rakell to eschew his skilled game to throw mitts near the crease? Were they expecting Drew O’Connor to become a bulldozing power forward who seeks the wars?

Penguins goalies are too uncomfortable and seemingly pay for every mistake while opposing goalies are allowed to be far too comfortable and get away with too much. How many bad goalies have looked like Marty Brodeur against the Penguins this season?

Michael Bunting is a step in the right direction. I’ll stand by my Dubas criticism that delaying the Jake Guentzel trade was harmful for the emotional toll it took on the team at a crucial moment and for trapping Dubas in a sellers role until the situation was resolved.

The Penguins have talent, but they showed up to the job site without all of the necessary tools.

Building teams that liked pretty over pain was a constant criticism of Dubas in Toronto. The more hockey changes, the more the bedrock fundamentals must be honored.

The Penguins need more players inside the dots, and it is up to the GM to get a few who will go there. The advanced stats on that should be clear, too.