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Kingerski: Penguins’ Inaction Was the Problem; What Exactly Was the Plan?



Kyle Dubas, Mike Sullivan, Jason Spezza, Pittsburgh Penguins 9/22/23

The Pittsburgh Penguins this season have been a flawed team from the beginning.

Since November, they’ve been figuratively crying out for help, but none was forthcoming. The team’s flaws have been exposed. They lack enough emotional leaders. The third pairing has been a problem child all season. With respect to Chad Ruhwedel, his place in the NHL is more akin to a 40-year-old lefty relief pitcher than a contributing defenseman.

The big acquisitions have struggled. Reilly Smith and Ryan Graves were heralded when acquired, but those feelings have soured.

Former general manager Ron Hextall was lambasted over his inaction while Sidney Crosby pulled his team forward like the greatest hockey plow horse to ever live.

Current Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has followed a similar path. The Penguins’ additions since training camp began are: Jansen Harkins, John Ludvig, Jesse Puljujarvi, Matthew Phillips, and Emil Bemstrom.

That’s all the help Crosby received. To call it underwhelming would be an undeserving kindness.

And now we stand on the precipice of the Penguins trading long-time Crosby winger Jake Guentzel and more before the March 8 NHL trade deadline.

As Crosby again pushed, willed, and dragged his team forward, the incongruent roster buckled as mistake-prone players merely multiplied the mistakes of others. Some nights, the oldest team in professional sports didn’t bother to show up. Some nights, they showed up and schooled their opponents only to lose when their disastrous power play backfired like the tailpipe of an ’81 Harley (The jingle for those bikes was: ride a Harley, ride the best. Ride a mile, walk the rest).

The myriad of ways the Penguins have lost games has been staggering. At times, coaches and players alike have only been able to shake their heads.

The exasperation and frustration from Lars Eller visible in the locker room would dispel any myths the Penguins don’t care. The pursed lips from Bryan Rust and the crestfallen Kris Letang’s extended locker sits have been joined by bewildered Drew O’Connor.

O’Connor’s emergence has been overshadowed by the losses.

At no point during this arduous campaign full of unbelievable failures and mistakes, sad power plays, happy opponents, and no-show losses have the Penguins consistently performed to a high standard. Even when the team won eight of 11 following that humiliating 7-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 16, which was broadcast for all of Canada to witness, they were never at full stride.

They were always mistake-prone. And maddeningly so.

They’ve often been short on secondary scoring. The pair of wasted bottom-six goals on Saturday only underscores how infrequent scoring beyond the top line has been.

The power play has wreaked of indecision and perimeter play like the smell of stale beer on a fraternity house floor.

The defense has been healthy yet performed like patchwork, as Graves, Joseph, and Ruhwedel have left the Penguins needing more. Joseph’s current upswing beside Letang is a bright spot, and one wonders why coach Mike Sullivan didn’t stick with it earlier … much earlier and let Joseph work through his struggles.

It’s been understandable that a segment of the fanbase has called for Sullivan’s job. So many problems create an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, and after punting away another victory within reach by allowing the Calgary Flames to score four unanswered goals, the Penguins may be feeling a little overwhelmed, too.

They were a doormat for the Edmonton Oilers, and Crosby admitted they had not yet moved past the Calgary loss.

“I think we had a tough loss and I don’t know if we did a good enough job of moving by it,” said Crosby Sunday after the 6-1 drubbing by the Edmonton Oilers. I think that you’ve got to find a way, even if it’s one like that, to move by it.”

Also, Sullivan is far from blameless. His plate-juggling act with a roster that is far too thin includes a few broken plates, but the only foible truly on his shoulders is the busted power play.

It seems surprising that with the regression of several defensemen and the power play that all coaches remain intact.

The totality of the mess rests on Dubas.

Sure, he inherited a decrepit roster full of players the Penguins were only to happy to jettison. He inherited a roster full of no-trade and no-movements clauses as if they were standard-issue prison jeans.

What exactly was the plan?

As the Penguins crumbled, there was nothing from management.

Was Erik Karlsson to be the magic and ONLY bullet? Dubas admitted he sought a mid-season shake-up hockey trade but didn’t find one available.

Instead, Dubas trolled the waiver wire and minor-league-level trades. With respect to the guys like Harkins, none have the pedigree or talent to change the Penguins’ fortunes. Singularly, each would be a fine pickup, albeit a gamble, to see if a player can unlock his talent with a fresh start elsewhere.

But the roster flaws were obvious from early on (you can track PHN’s analysis throughout the year, including the rough-elbows postgame analysis on Dec. 9, “Dubas Must Follow Through, This Isn’t Working” and the scathing follow-up on Dec. 17, “Something is Deeply Wrong).

A GM who can’t find a trade isn’t desperate enough. The Vancouver Canucks acquired Nikita Zadorov for a third-rounder. The Islanders picked up Robert Bortuzzo to add depth and a more physical element for a seventh-rounder. Tyson Barrie requested out of Nashville, but the pending UFA with a $4.5 million cap hit and power play skills remains in Music City.

There were players being moved. More are available.

Just spitballing here, but could Dubas have spared a forward and/or small asset for Barrie? Or Zadorov? In fairness, Jim Rutherford routinely gets the jump on everyone, but Dubas has sat still.

The full list of Dubas additions from the summer is a mixed bag. Lars Eller and Noel Acciari have performed admirably. The Penguins’ record with and without Acciari is significantly different.

Karlsson has been good, though both he and Sullivan expect great.

Reilly Smith and Ryan Graves have been problematic. Smith ringing the crossbar in the second period was an opportunity that could have put the game away. Instead, it fluttered away, just like the Penguins season.

The plan last the summer was clear. But what happened when it wasn’t working? Crosby needed reinforcements, even minor, but like the SS California that was within nautical sight of the Titanic, no help was given.

Is the plan to overhaul the roster by allowing the existing troop to atrophy? Given Dubas’s emotional roller coaster during games, it’s almost silly to think that the team was created with any purpose other than winning.

But why did Dubas tie his own hands? It is obvious, and has been obvious, that this iteration lacked the yeast to rise, yet here we are days before the NHL trade deadline, discussing which Penguins will be sacrificed for youth and future assets.

It seems a little proactive movement could have avoided this or at least removed any question: What exactly was the plan?