SAN JOSE — Jeff Carter had a few games of the regular season to get acclimated and settle into the new season. The 38-year-old former fan favorite with 431 career goals has increasingly struggled to produce and has been relegated to fourth-line right wing. Seemingly a fixture of the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, coach Mike Sullivan has staunchly defended his player from significant criticism.
Even with another option available to join the Penguins lineup, Carter played the last three games. However, it appears he is the latest of struggling players to get a seat. Vinnie Hinostroza took Carter’s spot on the fourth line Thursday at practice and again Friday when the team practiced at Sharks Ice in San Jose.
“I think the message is that we’re not satisfied, and usually when changes are made, it’s because we haven’t gotten the results that we’re hoping to get here,” Sullivan said. “And we have higher expectations of our group. I don’t think anybody has higher expectations than the team itself, the players themselves, the coaching staff, and the management team.”
The Penguins have disastrously lost the last two but in entirely different ways. The Penguins’ fourth line has only been scored upon once, but their Corsi is an abysmal 42%, and their scoring chance rate is 41%. The losses are certainly not the fault of the fourth line, but their contributions to winning are also suspect.
All stats are according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Carter’s inclusion in the Penguins lineup had become a running question among the fanbase and observers.
That run seems to be ending, and the question, “Why now,” is relevant.
Sullivan is pushing buttons, hoping to find changes that work. The top-heavy team that emerged from training camp has largely received the expected contributions from the top of the lineup, but the bottom has been quiet, and the lineup is generally mistake-prone.
“I think some games we’ve been attacking so hard,” said defenseman Marcus Pettersson on Tuesday. “We kind of lose our head a little bit and get frustrated that we don’t score. Then we’ve kind of lose our head (more).”
The Penguins have sounded the right tones in public about playing well in stretches and liking this or that part of their game on any given night, but the latest change is further proof that the 3-6-0 start is causing concern.
Don’t listen to the words. Watch the actions. Sullivan didn’t shy away when PHN asked on Friday about sending a message. That in itself tells you how serious the situation is. The Penguins are six points behind the New York Islanders for third place and a gaggle of teams in the wild card sports.
Teams that aren’t in a playoff position by American Thanksgiving usually don’t make the playoffs. That is a fact that players have discussed in the locker room, even if they don’t go on record as such.
Sullivan seemed to imply a criticism of his team’s commitment, too.
“When changes are made, inevitably, it’s a result of us not living up to our own expectations. I think we have the makings of being a very good hockey team,” Sullivan said. “I think we’ve had long stretches of games where we played extremely well, but we’ve got to get results, and we have to make sure that we bring a certain level of commitment in order to make that happen. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Sullivan’s actions are mounting. The coach has taken a methodical approach to changing parts of his lineup that have not met the standards. First, P.O Joseph got a seat in favor of Ryan Shea. Joseph was nothing close to his best to start this season. Shea has been better.
Next, Chad Ruhwedel got a seat in favor of John Ludvig. Ludvig had a solid 30 minutes of one game in his NHL debut before he suffered a concussion on an open-ice hit that he delivered on Dallas Stars forward Radek Faksa. Ruhwedel has been subpar and prone to losing battles, though he remains Sullivan’s only right-side choice after Ludvig’s injury.
Now, Hinostroza for Carter.
You may ask why changes took so long, but the team is only nine games into the season, though it already feels like the team is in the midst of a heated playoff run months in the making. Also, Hinostroza’s time is limited because he is with the team only, while the backup goalie Alex Nedeljkovic is on long-term injured reserve with a lower-body injury. Nedeljkovic will be eligible to return on Nov. 19.
It wouldn’t be the worst decision in the world to sacrifice one of the eight NHL defensemen to waivers in exchange for a 13th forward. Carter has looked every bit like he’s 38 and a player not only struggling to perform to standard but one accepting that his standard is much lower than it used to be.
Coaches have not yet given a prominent player a seat or a plate of press box nachos. Rickard Rakell has zero goals and just one lonely point in nine games despite playing beside Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith, who have filled the net this season.
Ryan Graves is also not off to a great start this season, though his shortcomings show up on the other team’s scoresheet, not the Penguins. Pettersson hasn’t been his best self, either.
Starting goalie Tristan Jarry has both been hung out to dry and let down his team. His save percentage is a mere .893 despite two shutouts.
Nor do the Pittsburgh Penguins have easy games on the West Coast trip. Even the San Jose Sharks, who lost 10-1 to the Vancouver Canucks Thursday night, figure to be embarrassed and angry. Anaheim beat the Penguins Tuesday, and the LA Kings are one the better teams in the Western Conference. LA is also one of the biggest, and they play like it.
If the smaller messages haven’t yet been received, perhaps bigger ones are in store from Sullivan … or higher up.