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Penguins Struggles, It’s Time to Take Away Jobs



Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Graves, NHL trade chatter

A season in the balance. A hated and hateful rival ahead in the standings coming for an afternoon war in which a loss would kick loose the last bit of belief that the Pittsburgh Penguins could make the playoffs.

Erik Karlsson said it’s felt like the Penguins have been in “now or never” mode for six weeks. Coach Mike Sullivan said the playoffs have already begun for the team.

And yet it was a grinding gears sort of win for the Penguins on Thursday, as they started slow and made a bevy of mistakes before putting away a tired and inferior Montreal Canadiens 4-1.

“We’re capable of better,” Sullivan said of the effort.

The Penguins lines were largely the same Saturday morning at the UPMC Lemieux Complex, except for the addition of newly acquired Emil Bemstrom, who was carefully pried from the Columbus Blue Jackets Thursday evening in exchange for Alex Nylander and a conditional sixth-rounder that becomes a third-round pick if Bemstrom scores six goals.

However, the same lines are part of what is hurting the Penguins. Some players are not fulfilling the roles they’ve been given.

Ryan Graves is first and foremost.

The large Penguins defenseman started on the wrong skate this season and has yet to find his stride, and that’s being kind. Thursday against Montreal, coaches slipped Graves back to the third pairing with the steady Chad Ruhwedel, but Graves was an outright liability.

The third pairing struggled in all phases. Graves has a habit of wandering higher into the slot, abdicating the net front, leaving his goalie and his team at a disadvantage.

After 54 games, he’s ready for a timeout.

P.O Joseph played a strong game Thursday against Montreal, building on his game, which improved throughout the 5-4 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday. Joseph is one defender who could stabilize the Penguins’ blue line. The former first-round pick has the pedigree and raw talent to play top-four minutes, which he did beside Kris Letang in each of the last two games.

It’s no coincidence that with improved defensive play in the top four, the Penguins earned three points in two games and probably should have had four, at least according to the players’ sentiment in the room.

Saturday, John Ludvig again served as the spare defenseman and skated for an extended time after practice, signaling that he’s putting in extra work to be ready but will not play again on Sunday.

While Ludvig has not shown to be a defenseman that drives or improves possession, he’s also not shown to be an irresponsible or unreliable d-man. Perhaps Ludvig hasn’t forced Sullivan to keep him in the lineup, but after more than four months, Graves’s play should force Sullivan to make the hard choice.

Veteran players on long-term, lucrative contracts don’t get scratched. Those players get a chance to work through it, even if it’s a protracted battle.

But the Pittsburgh Penguins are out of time. They know the situation, and it’s not good. According to, the Penguins’ playoff odds are just 33.8%.

From here, Sullivan and the team can’t worry about the best 20 players. It’s time to go with the right 20 players. Every high-danger chance is one more chance for their teetering season to collapse. Every mistake is one more that teammates have to clean up or overcome.

Every combination has been tried. Graves with Letang. Graves with Karlsson and then with Ruhwedel.

With Karlsson, the pair has only a 51% Corsi and a negative goal differential (5-9). With Letang, the pair at least have a positive differential (16-12) but a low shot-attempt ratio (49%) and sub-par scoring chance ratio (49%).

For a team that has solid analytics well above 50% on all fronts, the negative numbers stand out.

It seems like the last combination with Graves involves the press box.

Jansen Harkins

Sullivan and the team have a similar situation on the fourth line. Much — probably too much — has been made of Jansen Harkins’s lack of goals in 37 games. Harkins has a goose egg in the column this season.

His play has slipped in recent weeks. The forecheck and element of physicality haven’t been as noticeable or impactful. Part of that dip could be center Noel Acciari’s absence, but a fourth-liners job is to play a hard game and add a little offense when possible.

However, even coaches are shortening Harkins’s leash. He’s played less than six minutes in four of the last five games. He hasn’t played more than 10 minutes since Jan. 20.

After Saturday’s practice, Jesse Puljujarvi and Matthew Phillips are on the outside. It would seem Puljujarvi would immediately be a better option. Phillips has played two games with the Penguins: one solid effort against the Islanders and a largely invisible night against Montreal.

The pair of presumed healthy scratches have very different attributes, but both could be complementary to Jeff Carter and Acciari, though in different ways.

The Penguins have bigger problems than any one player, but it’s time for every solution. It’s time to check egos and any fears of long-term impacts by scratching players who are typically above such actions.

Should the Penguins lose to the Flyers on Sunday, they will trail third place by 11 or 13 points (pending the Flyers’ result against the Rangers on Saturday) with four games in hand.

Update: The Rangers beat the Flyers 2-1 in regulation.

In fact, it’s time because there is no time left.