The Pittsburgh Penguins social media universe did not burn itself down as it did in the past two years after an early Penguins playoff exit. Perhaps losing is more acceptable after three times rolling craps. Perhaps deep down, fans didn’t believe the Penguins would beat Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders, or perhaps it’s the cold fear of what comes next.
The Penguins have been a star-laden team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang for a generation of hockey fans. While the fans have adopted a sibling rivalry between Crosby and Malkin, the stars have not.
But now, we wait and wonder if the Big 3 will stay together.
Beyond the Crosby-Malkin-Letang question, which we’ll spend weeks parsing, the Pittsburgh Penguins were not good enough. Not enough players overachieved. Instead, as a team, the Penguins underachieved.
And despite that, they still should have beaten the Islanders if not for faulty goaltending.
Beyond the debate and the wonder of the Penguins’ big three (which is a complicated question about which other teams will have input. Trust me on that; we’ll report as soon as we confirm one more detail), there are two places the Penguins need to look to improve for 2021-22.
Free agency, trades, and the Seattle expansion draft will play a role. Seattle may poke around on one of the Penguins’ left wings, which is where we will start.
1. Penguins Left-Wing Badly Underachieved.
The Penguins’ top-nine LW group: Jake Guentzel, Jared McCann, and Jason Zucker were awful in Round One. Zucker was present in Game 6, but his fit with Malkin is dubious at best. His fit with the team because of a $5.5 million salary is also dubious.
Such players can hang around if they elevate their game in the playoffs. Zucker doesn’t qualify for that exemption. Zucker managed a pair of goals but was MIA for the moments in between.
Jared McCann’s playoff struggles continued. He’s been absolutely invisible in the postseasons, enough to diminish his potential as a LW sniper. The 26-year-old winger has three assists in 11 playoff games. He had a single assist in the Round One series against the Islanders.
McCann seemed to indicate that he struggles with playoff nerves. He has never played on a team that has won a postseason series.
He still hasn’t.
From this third-line perch beside Jeff Carter, who was on fire, McCann was well placed to be a difference-maker in the series. Instead, McCann failed to get inside the Islanders’ defense or get behind them for enough prime scoring chances. IN six games, he had only two high-danger scoring chances. He posted merely one assist.
Suddenly, his healthy scratch in the 2020 Qualifying Round looms larger.
And Guentzel. The former darling of the Penguins who rocked 42 points (23-19-42) in his first two playoff runs. The rookie who popped a playoff hat trick and filled the nets on the 2017 Stanley Cup run has gone ice cold in the last three playoff seasons.
Not only did Guentzel not score at even strength, but he was non-existent, too. Guentzel’s No-You-See-Me, Now-You-Don’t routine left Penguins captain Sidney Crosby holding the bag for a lackluster top-line performance.
Crosby and Rust gathered a few points against New York. Crosby had a couple of defensive gaffes in Game 6, which was shocking, but there’s no questioning Crosby’s overall game, or Rust’s, in the last few playoffs. Each has been one of the few Penguins to make an impact, even if it didn’t translate to bigger points.
Guentzel has not made an impact and has been the target of physical play, which he has been unable to overcome. Until his Game 6 power-play goal, he had one lonely assist in the series. He didn’t score at even strength and his total over the last three years is six points (3-3-6) in 14 games.
That’s brutal for a top-line winger who is responsible for finishing on the left side of an all-time great. On Friday, Guentzel said he “let a lot of people down,” and he was looking forward to getting into the weight room this summer.
Because the Islanders were able to bottle him, he’ll have plenty of time.
If you want changes for next season, make sure to include the Penguins’ left-wingers.
2. Tristan Jarry added a need.
The Pittsburgh Penguins thought they had their goalie situation settled. After a couple of years of mediocre netminding by former Penguin Matt Murray, Jarry forced out Murray.
Jarry was solid after a rough start. He upped his save percentage to about .909 after an opening couple of weeks, where he plummeted to well under .800.
There isn’t a “points stolen” stat, but Jarry worked his GSAA (goals saved above average) to a positive 1.3, according to Hockey Reference.
But enough doling the positives that precede the criticism.
Jarry wasn’t good enough in the playoffs. Not even close. It was so bad, Penguins fans spread memes with Matt Murray and “Miss Me?” quotes.
Moving forward, the Penguins now have a huge question mark in net. The Pittsburgh Penguins absolutely cannot enter the 2022 playoffs, assuming they make it, and hope Jarry is better.
In the words of head coach Mike Sullivan, who will return next season, “hope is not a strategy.”
The Penguins must fortify the backup position behind Jarry. That’s not a knock on current backup Casey DeSmith, who has proven to be a capable puck stopper. Still, the Penguins will need a playoff capable backup to puck Jarry and be ready in the event of another Chernobyl meltdown.
Unless the Penguins go full rebuild and a playoff goalie is a luxury they don’t need, a playoff experienced backup is essential. There were plenty available for a pittance last summer. We’ll see what the crop looks like this summer, and there should be a few more available, and perhaps a higher profile ‘tendy from Toronto and maybe a worker bee from Arizona.
We’ll play with the names later in the summer. The names are less important than the need.
And the Penguins can start there.