It’s hard not to wonder if the Pittsburgh Penguins are in a bit of trouble. The Metro Division standings are bunched tighter than a pair of Hanes that is a size too small, and the other teams seem to be dialing in as the Penguins are trying to remember the before times, when they were rolling through opponents.
This keyboard was at the debacle on Long Island against the New York Islanders, the meteoric meltdown against the Detroit Red Wings at PPG Paints Arena, followed by the disjointed loss to the New Jersey Devils on Friday. As a result, the Penguins, Rangers, and Islanders are basically within a game of each other. If the current standings held, only two would make the playoffs.
The Penguins have challenges, problems, or issues. Pick the word that best describes your level of angst.
But those problems seem increasingly to be GM Ron Hextall’s problems to fix.
Because after nearly 40 games this season, and a sizable portion of last season, they’re not getting better.
On Tuesday morning, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan admitted he planned to tinker with the bottom-six, especially with Josh Archibald and Ryan Poehling out of the lineup.
He didn’t expect 30 minutes of an uncontested game to try different combinations. Did he like anything he saw?
“Not really,” Sullivan said.
Nor have Penguins fans.
He tinkered with the bottom-six Wednesday and demoted Kasperi Kapanen to the fourth line. Kapanen had his best 20 minutes of hockey in a few weeks. He forechecked hard, and his work earned a pair of primary assists. He set up Drew O’Connor, who also played a solid 20 minutes, and Jeff Carter.
Carter had a very good first period, but over the next 40 minutes, he was a part of a mass disappearing act in the offensive zone and part of the problems in the defensive zone.
Singular periods aren’t going to cut it.
Carter has 17 points this season, but has been on the ice for more goals-against. He’s also well underwater on scoring chances and shot-attempt rates.
Kapanen has been in and out of the press box. He played less than eight minutes Wednesday, but has 10 points in his last 13 games.
The Penguins have lost five of their last six games, all to playoff contenders, including a pair to the Carolina Hurricanes and one each to the New York Islanders, the Detroit Red Wings, and the New Jersey Devils.
However, an exposition of flaws or problems must include this caveat: Don’t forget about the recent 19-3-3 run. That run simultaneously highlights the Penguins’ potential and one of their most significant flaws.
Flaw #1: Soft Spots.
The Penguins’ third line is not holding up its end of the bargain.
Kasperi Kapanen remains hot and cold, though it appears he is in a major thaw. If there is a Penguins player who could find his game, Kapanen’s age, health, and physical tools point toward him.
The Penguins’ blue line has similar soft spots. Brian Dumoulin has gone from unsung hero beside Kris Letang to being loudly criticized.
Dumoulin’s bad turnover in the defensive zone Wednesday directly led to Detroit’s second goal, which turned a fairly comfortable 4-1 game into a competitive 4-2 game (the Penguins lost 5-4 in OT).
It’s hard to criticize Teddy Blueger and the fourth line because offense is not its job, but also fair to note that he has only seven points in 21 games, including one goal. Poehling has filled his role, but only scored eight points (4-4-8) in 31 games. Archibald has six points (4-2-6) in 30 games.
The Penguins’ fourth line had lived up to its defensive role when healthy, but could contribute more.
Without question, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup needs more from those spots, but their “problems,” issues, or challenges do not solely rest with Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brian Dumoulin.
Flaw #1A: Top-Heavy Lineup
For every action, there is an opposite reaction. The lack of bottom-six support means everything rides on the top.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has been on a tear this season. Hart Trophy talk has followed.
“Second-line” center (former coach Mike Johnston always stopped reporters dead in their tracks if they used that term) Evgeni Malkin has also been putting up more than a point per game and generally playing a solid brand of hockey.
Mistakes have recently come back into his game, and the over-reliance on him has magnified the results.
When Crosby and Malkin are on their games, the Penguins fill the net. Sidecar wingers do, too. Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and Jason Zucker have been solid.
It’s hard to cite anyone below the Penguins’ top-six as having a good season, at least 5v5. The Penguins’ PK is filled mainly with the bottom-six, and Rust has become one of the best in the league.
The top of the Penguins’ lineup determines their success and failure. It’s a good top of the lineup to have, but the bottom must begin to carry its weight. One- or two-line teams generally are extinct by June.
Flaw #2: Experience
Wait, experience can be a bad thing?
“We have a lot of experience here. We’re an old team, not young,” Malkin said after the loss to Detroit. “People understand when you play right, like the whole game — (we didn’t), it’s a huge mistake for everybody.”
It’s more than the law of diminishing returns. The oldest team in the league, which has five players with two or three Stanley Cup rings, isn’t fazed or scared by losing.
They’re not scared of losing four of five, and they didn’t seem that perturbed by a seven-game winless streak earlier this season.
What angered the Penguins was blowing a late lead in a rematch with the Carolina Hurricanes. That seemed to get their dander up, but losing, even bad games, doesn’t seem to cause emotion.
Been there. Done that. It is a great mentality for high-pressure situations which crack other teams, but it seems to hurt this Penguins team on the ordinary struggles.
Perhaps no team in the NHL has seen a greater range of performance from the brilliant, unbeatable streaks to what Sullivan also termed as “disconnected” in two losses this week.
He didn’t make that claim after the loss to New Jersey on Friday, but it would be hard to come away from that game thinking good things.
Will more serious hockey of the second half raise engagement and diminish the streakiness? When the Penguins are good, they can be good for an extended time, but when they’re bad, they can be jaw-droppingly, bewilderingly bad.
As Dave Molinari quoted Alfred E. Neuman on this page a couple of months ago, “What, me worry?”
From soft spots in the lineup, which have been exploited by divisional opponents, to creating a top-heavy lineup and a disconnected attitude, the solutions are varied.
Can Mark Friedman or Ty Smith step into a regular NHL role?
Pressure will soon be on GM Ron Hextall to find a fix or two for the soft spots. The Carter-Kapanen struggles are no longer short-term; they’ve existed since last season.
The more than $6 million combined salary-cap hit for the pair looms large in a suffocating cap situation.
There is just one more benchmark remaining in the NHL season: The All-Star Game. After that, the March 3 NHL trade deadline looms, and soon after, the start of the NHL playoffs.
A week ago, no one doubted the Penguins’ playoff position. Now, a pair of New York teams could take that away.
The Penguins’ problems are not new. And it’s about time to address them … or be limited by them.