The Pittsburgh Penguins and the fan base is swallowing a few bitter pills as everyone waits for the return of Evgeni Malkin and Justin Schultz. Those bitter pills come in the form of watching a stumbling team unable to win close games against Toronto, Florida, or Tampa Bay. Not only have the Penguins lost to those teams, but several season-long issues which had been swept under the rug also came crawling back into the light.
And some issue took center stage online despite not being large issues. Welcome to the internet age.
1. As Phil Kessel Goes, so Go the Penguins
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Kessel was always supposed to be the support guy, the comic relief or the icing on the cake. Remember the popular refrain when he was acquired–“He doesn’t have to be the guy here.”
Unfortunately, now Kessel is one of the core group of players responsible for the Penguins winning and losing. When Kessel is on his game, the Penguins win. The scruffy guy with the big wrist shot can elevate the Penguins, but he can also sink them. When Kessel scores a goal, the Penguins are 11-3-2. When Kessel doesn’t score, the Penguins are 17-17-5.
I call that below .500, regardless of the loser points.
When Kessel goes sideways (literally and figuratively), it creates a vacuous hole in the middle of the lineup which separates the superior work of the Sidney Crosby line from the hard work of the fourth line. And not only does it create that hole, but it also creates a greater need for ice time from the scoring lines because the Penguins are trailing or battling and reduces the available ice for the successful fourth line.
After the overtime loss to Florida last Thursday, when head coach Mike Sullivan referenced the Penguins failure on a two-man advantage he noted, “There was a 50-50 puck and we didn’t compete hard enough on it.”,
Sullivan was referring to Kessel. Saturday, when Kessel threw the backhand into nowhere, the Tampa Bay Lightning scored another shorthanded goal. Sidney Crosby referenced that goal as the difference in their 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay.
Kessel and Derick Brassard as linemates sank quickly but it wasn’t all on Brassard. And when Kessel and newly acquired Nick Bjugstad teamed up, the Penguins beat Ottawa. When Kessel didn’t play well with Bjugstad, the Penguins lost to Toronto and Tampa Bay.
The point is: As Kessel goes, so go the Penguins. He is the force which can put them over the top, but he is also the force which can sink them.
2. The Penguins Lack Conviction
I don’t know quite what it is. These Penguins lack something vital. Heart? Desire? Urgency, need, courage, buy-in, belief or confidence?
The lackadaisical play is often stunning. As Crosby hustles around the ice fighting for every inch, every puck, there are noticeably several others who aren’t.
The coach is pushing the players in one direction. The Penguins have identified the evolution of the game and a strategy to deal with it. They want to play hard and play low–an offensive ground and pound with elite talent, zippy wingers, and puck possession.
What we’re seeing is a partial buy-in. Some players are just not adopting the scheme. It’s been difficult for Evgeni Malkin who possesses the natural skills for the new style but adjusting his mental compass has taken some work and caused frustration. Kessel has done his own thing. Tanner Pearson has gone AWOL and the team as a whole is losing close games after not exerting enough effort for large portions of those games.
They look average at best. Perhaps Malkin and Justin Schultz will spark the team but this isn’t a talent issue plaguing the Penguins. It’s a mental one.
After losing to Tampa Bay and the much talked about league-leading 12th shorthanded goal against, Sidney Crosby said, “We need to find a way to make sure we’re getting those big plays and that’s probably the more frustrating part than anything.”
An effort is one thing which should never lack.
The regular season matters. The habits are formed and the identity is achieved now. If the Penguins aren’t clicking soon, Carolina could race past them. And Buffalo too. Lack of consistent effort from every player in the lineup is a huge red flag.
Right now they look like they’ll be golfing in April, which is a shame because they have the talent to skate in June.
3. Mike Sullivan and Jim Rutherford Bear Some Responsibility for the Brassard Situation
Florida head coach Bob Boughner immediately put Derick Brassard on the left wing. Suddenly Florida has some real jump. Their deficiencies will keep them out of the playoff race, but I wouldn’t want to face that forwards crew. It is top shelf.
Brassard should have learned to play with emotion despite being a third line center in Pittsburgh. It can’t be that difficult. However, he also approached the team with his concerns at the end of last season. For a long time, the Penguins knew he would not be happy in that role yet continued to try it.
“Brass and I have had many conversations…” Sullivan said many times when the Brassard issue was raised.
As I wrote over the summer, if there isn’t enough ice for Brassard, trade him. The Penguins likely would have gotten a much better deal had they moved him after last season. Once the Penguins chose to keep Brassard into this season, there was a job opening on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing which Brassard could have filled quite well.
Brassard beside Malkin could have been Brassard’s “Giroux” career turn. The Penguins could have been searching for a third line center while employing a dynamic left winger, who would still function as insurance should Malkin or Crosby be injured.
Nashville got Brian Boyle for a song (a second-round pick), but that could have been the Penguins. Instead, the mess may not yet be cleaned up as the team waits to see if Nick Bjugstad is a third line center or top line right wing or if Jared McCann who was the Florida fourth line center can reasonably be their third line pivot.
If the Brassard trade doesn’t work, the Penguins are in trouble.