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Penguins Q&A: Jeff Carter, Cold Offense, and Heat on Mike Sullivan?



NHL free agents to chase, Tyler Bertuzzi, Evan Rodrigues, Ivan Barbashev, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan

The Pittsburgh Penguins know how to bring drama. More than any housewives, rock stars, or scripted dramas, the Penguins give hope, take it away, and pull upon emotions better than any of them. And so, after a fourth loss in five games despite a pronounced emphasis on winning games in October, tensions are rising.

It’s difficult to know if those above coach Mike Sullivan share any shred of the anxiety about Sullivan that is increasingly engulfing the public. However, as we hit the Penguins Q&A, the exasperation, disappointment, and straight anger are more than apparent.

The Penguins lost to the Ottawa Senators Saturday and were summarily rejected by goalie Joonas Korpisalo. A great first period became impatience and mistakes, while the Penguins did not get similarly strong goaltending.

However, despite the players’ mistakes, the focus is increasingly aimed toward Sullivan.

Given the widespread chatter throughout the offseason that Fenway Sports Group was more than impressed with Sullivan, it seems farfetched the coach could be in trouble. Still, this Q&A must concede that questions surrounding the team are rising faster than they’re able to provide answers. Such situations are the definition of the hot seat.

Pittsburgh Penguins Q&A:


Answer: I don’t believe Sullivan will pay the price unless this continues for weeks more and the internal situation takes a sharply negative turn. Exhibit A remains the win over Colorado on Thursday. The team has it, but it’s down deep, and there are roster construction problems. President of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas put his eggs in the top of the lineup’s basket, both on offense and defense.

So, when key players are struggling there will be issues. The struggles of the depth players only exacerbate the team’s struggles. Top-pair defenseman Ryan Graves has stumbled out of the gate. Winger Rickard Rakell has been ineffective and relegated to the background in most games.

The team is not only old, but they appear to be old in spirit. As I wrote last week, youthful enthusiasm or desperation is replaced with veteran chill, and that’s to the Penguins’ detriment.

However, this quote from Mike Sullivan on Saturday morning made my ears perk up.

“My experience of coaching in the league is when teams are vulnerable, players are the most receptive,” said Sullivan. “When you lose a few games, and everybody is searching for solutions, it’s our job as a coaching staff to bring those solutions to the table. And we have to do it in a compelling way where we convince our guys that if we play the game a certain way, we’ll have success. An important aspect of coaching is to build the buy-in that is necessary for everybody to be on the same page.”

I think it’s fair to say the Penguins have failed to stay on the same page. I suspect the roster would undergo more retooling before Sullivan is on a truly hot seat.

Answer: I think that is possible. The Penguins’ power play has been so disorganized and inconsistent that some of the collateral damage could go upward. The unit is at 10%. Please don’t mistake this for advocating associate coach Todd Reirden be fired. I am pointing out that if such significant changes are believed to be necessary, this move likely precedes anything involving Sullivan.

A hockey analyst with whom I have frequent conversations had the same belief; an assistant coach would pay the price before Sullivan. In Reirden’s negative column are the power play and P.O Joseph’s regression balancing Ryan Shea’s elevation. Assistant coach Mike Vellucci oversees the forwards and the frustrating mistakes could be used against him, too.

#3, From Kenny:


Answer: No. The team will not break it down and sell for parts. I get the temptation and exasperation.

Will another bad season push one or more of the core three to move on? That seems more possible than a teardown. During the pandemic, Evgeni Malkin’s wife admitted she wanted him to go elsewhere to be a captain. Kris Letang summers in Montreal.

Unless things absolutely fall apart before the NHL trade deadline, and even that probably isn’t enough, the team will stay together.

Answer: My best guess is that the team won on Thursday, and you don’t change the lineup after a big win.

Remember our rule that Jeff Carter is largely off limits, not because we need to protect him, but because it’s pointless to go over and over it. I criticized the forward last week. I don’t think he’s getting to the forecheck quickly enough, and I have questioned some of his defensive efforts, but for your sanity and mine, we’ll leave it at that.

Vinnie Hinostroza could make a difference on the fourth line, and his lengthy NHL experience combined with blazing speed should be trustworthy enough to be inserted into the lineup, if only for a few weeks.

Answer: You chant “Fire Canada,” don’t you?

There are several more issues that we’ll get into this week. There are several players not getting flak but who are struggling in new roles. It seems every issue creates indirect issues and every solution cleans up a couple of them, too.

It’s far too early to write off this team, but it is shocking nonetheless.