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Penguins Grades: This Isn’t Working, Dubas Must Follow Through



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel

SUNRISE, Fla — This just isn’t working for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Even when they play well, as they did in a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers at Amerant Bank Arena, it hasn’t been enough.

There isn’t a need for a tactical breakdown or in-depth analysis of the singular game. Not now. It’s time for Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas to follow through on his comments from earlier in the week.

On his team-hosted radio show, Dubas pointedly said the Florida trip would be a litmus test for his team. On the important three-game trip, the Penguins have scored just three goals. Three. They’ve lost all three (0-2-1), too.

The test that Dubas proffered has been returned, and they earned a big red F. There doesn’t seem to be a choice any longer.

Management can no longer cling to what “should be” but must fix “what is.”

It seems the Penguins’ off-season acquisitions are struggling to fit or struggling to make an impact. The Penguins’ core is struggling to score goals. And the power play with four future Hall of Famers and an All-Star has been so bad that it would be a compliment to call it impotent.

This wasn’t the plan.

None of this is working. As they plummet to next-to-last in the Metro Division–only the hapless Columbus Blue Jackets are worse–the problems outnumber the positives.

Perhaps a frustrating part for many is that there is not one scapegoat. Fans can’t hang the malaise on Jack Johnson, Mikael Granlund, or Jeff Carter. Heck, Jeff Carter has elevated his game since being reinserted into the lineup two weeks ago.

“I think (Carter) has (played better),” Sullivan said. “He’s been better the last little while here … I think he’s played a lot better since we’ve reinserted him in the lineup.”

He really has.

Penguins goalies have been a saving grace. Three-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson has 19 points in 25 games. Kris Letang has played some of the best defense of his career, and Marcus Pettersson certainly has done the same.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel lead the league in even strength points.

Based on the above and the advanced analytics, the Penguins should be comfortably in the playoff picture. Based on watching the games, the Penguins too often appear to be what they are–near last place.

After losing to the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in a shootout at PPG Paints Arena, the Penguins lost to the Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center 2-1 in OT, laid down for a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena, and fought to no avail in a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers.

The team is 3-4-3 in their last 10 games, and there are now four pretty good teams between them and a playoff spot. The Carolina Hurricanes hold the second wild card spot. The Tampa Bay Lightning, New Jersey Devils, and Washington Capitals are ahead of the Penguins, whose winning percentage is just .481.

They are below .500 26 games into the season.

No one will say it’s good enough. And try as the current group of players might, they don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

“I thought we generated some good chances, and If I put that (third-period scoring chance) in, it is probably 2-2, a different game,” said Crosby. “So we’ve just got to find a way to get a lead.”

Trailing 2-1, the power play once again had a chance to make a difference late in the third period but fecklessly wasted another two minutes before Sasha Barkov popped the empty netter.

Players have not criticized the power play scheme, but at least one indicated it lacks direction.

Karlsson is struggling to command the power play. Perhaps so are Sullivan and associate coach Todd Reirden. Karlsson’s blunt assessment from weeks ago still holds, “Someone needs to take charge.”

Evgeni Malkin’s offensive pace has slowed to a crawl. Linemate Reilly Smith scored the lone Penguins goal against Florida, but it was his first scoring two on Nov. 4.

The third line and its various iterations have struggled to contribute offense. Radim Zohorna was a healthy scratch Friday in Florida in favor of 27-year-old journeyman Marc Johnstone, who made his NHL debut.

The fourth line is in shambles with injuries to Matt Nieto and Noel Acciari, though it was not setting the world on fire before both hit the injured lists.

Defenseman Ryan Graves is fighting himself in the Penguins system, and there seem to be no signs of those struggles abating. The third pairing isn’t so bad, as Ryan Shea and John Ludvig performed well in their roles, but their names infrequently appear on the score sheets.

Some of the new players aren’t necessarily fitting in, the power play is directionless, some of the stars are struggling to score, and the depth is letting them down. The team is trying, at least on most nights, but they can’t find “it.”

Good teams find ways to win games. Bad teams lose games.

Dubas laid down the gauntlet. Now, he must follow through.

Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card

Team: B-

They played hard, and they played well enough to win. But results matter. There was a loose puck near the net in the second period. A rising shot through traffic caught goalie Tristan Jarry awkwardly, and the puck was just outside the crease. No one tied up, blocked or stopped Eetu Luostarinen, who knocked the puck into the net for the winner.

The Panthers’ first goal was a similar story. No one tied up Anton Lundell, who knocked the puck away from Jarry, and no one saw the crashing defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

Guentzel had a breakaway. Crosby furiously pushed throughout the game but couldn’t get one of his several high-danger chances past Sergei Bobrovsky.

Tristan Jarry: A

A goalie is only as good as the team in front of him, and the Penguins left their goalie exposed on two crucial plays. Jarry was otherwise fantastic.

The New Guys: Good on Them

“I thought they competed hard,” Sullivan said. “They’re honest players. They play hard. They compete hard. I thought they gave us what they had.”

If you’re asking Marc Johnstone, Valtteri Puustinen, and Jonathan Gruden to save the ship, you’re really in trouble. The three were recalled Friday, and all were in the lineup. Puustinen made an impact and was an upgrade.

Johnstone will forever have the memory of his first NHL game.