PHN readers were able to save the stamp and instead lick their wounds. The weekly (semi-weekly, or as we feel like it) Pittsburgh Penguins mailbag is rife with hope for a Penguins trade, anger, frustration, and blame. Lots and lots of blame for the Penguins’ defensemen, Brian Dumoulin, Casey DeSmith, GM Ron Hextall, and a spoonful for coach Mike Sullivan.
We received a few dozen unique responses this week.
Be warned, my answers will not be the populist anger-inciting responses that you may want. But the answers will be to the best of my 20-plus years of hockey coverage and insights from inside the room. I was there on the west coast and in the room every day.
Here we go.
Pittsburgh Penguins mailbag:
#1 Is Dumo hurt or is this his new normal? #2 Is Petry just taking longer to get acclimated or is his recent play indicative of what we should expect?
— RJ (@RHPRandy) November 3, 2022
First, let’s stop fixating on Brian Dumoulin. He was on the ice for a pair of goals-against on Wednesday vs. Buffalo. However, his assignment did not factor into either score.
The “Dumoulin effect” is becoming its own scapegoat. He was brutal against Edmonton and not so hot against Vancouver. However, to prove my point, look at all of the negative Dumoulin sentiment after the Buffalo loss. Yet, he was just fine.
Some of his bad moments weren’t even his. When the forwards turnover the puck, creating a speedy transition with numbers, a defenseman can be like roadkill through no fault of his own.
Don’t hyperfocus on Brian Dumoulin. He had a rocky stretch. Dumoulin is a quiet, steady defenseman. The things he does to help the team are not easily seen and definitely not eye-catching for an audience. When you notice him, that’s when he’s not playing well. He’s had a few very bad games, but he’s also becoming Twitter’s new Jack Johnson. The Penguins could replace Dumoulin with the very best of Dumoulin retroactive to Edmonton, and that losing streak is still five or six games.
If the front office was even thinking of firing Sullivan, would the contract extension prevent that?
— J🍩ey Bag 🍩f D🍩nuts 🍩 (@joeybagovdonuts) November 3, 2022
Mike Sullivan is under contract to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins for four more years (after this one). Two bad weeks, even a couple of bad months, won’t change that. The Penguins’ effort isn’t in question, nor is their system. The Penguins are out-of-sorts. It’s a mess, but it’s not permanent. Or if it is permanent, it is the players who will be swapped out, not the coach.
If he doesn’t remain the Penguins coach, you could knock me over with a feather.
How much of a leash does DeSmith have? He looks horrific
— AP (@bigmoneyap1) November 3, 2022
DeSmith gave up two goals against Seattle. He was nearly brilliant against Montreal. DeSmith kept the Penguins in the game in Montreal, despite their best efforts to give it away.
The two yawning-cage goals against Buffalo were weird. You might not see one goal like that for a few months, yet DeSmith allowed two. He wasn’t at his best, but he was far from terrible. In bad times, blaming a goalie is a bit like reaching for a life preserver. If things have gotten that bad, there are a lot more problems.
And the Penguins have bigger problems.
I say get rid of Kapanan, McGinn, Poehling, Doumelin, Carter, etc Bring in young players who care and want to prove themselves.Take whatever you can get for these guys whatever!Why isn’t Friedman on the team. At least he plays like he cares!!!
— Stephen Powanda (@pozone6031) November 3, 2022
Sure. Would you like Tim Stutzle, Jack Hughes, or maybe Juraj Slafkovsky?
which “old guy” contract with haunt hextall the most? The big Jeff contract timing seemed peculiar to start.
— maybeTROLLn (@maybeTROLLn) November 3, 2022
Carter’s contract seemed like a bargain at the moment, but it is a microcosm of issues now. Carter is a bit soft defensively, and he doesn’t bolster the PK like a third-line center should. It was not a problem when the Penguins had fourth-liners capable of total shutdown domination (Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Brian Boyle, Brock McGrinn, Brandon Tanev, etc…).
But that’s not the case anymore and the third liners are needed for the dirty work.
Carter is a scoring center on a team that badly needs another grinder in the middle who can be a shutdown defender. Drew O’Connor isn’t. Sam Poulin isn’t yet, but he might get there sooner than later (Poulin is more likely a fourth-line center).
The third line of Danton Heinen, Carter, and Kasperi Kapanen is a scoring line. The team is in need of a defensive line.
At what point is Ron Hextall held accountable? This is not a well built team!
— Tiff (@NikkySyxx) November 3, 2022
Ron Hextall added a lot of talent. In August, I wrote that I didn’t understand the Kasperi Kapanen contract. I would say that was the only mistake; he gambled the Penguins could find the 20-goal Kapanen.
When things are going sideways, a GM is a natural person to blame. Hextall does have some work to do — more than light tinkering — with the roster. Some PK help and some grinding, simple play would go A LONG way. The third line can’t be risky and must be able to handle the defensive work.
That’s the biggest, most correctable flaw on the team.
Could we see POJ bumped up to the 1st line playing with Letang and Dumoulin moved to the 3rd line to help shelter him while he is struggling?
— Joe (@JW8771) November 3, 2022
I, too, have pondered that possibility. However, I’ve come to the conclusion the answer is no, not yet. It isn’t a knock on Joseph but a fit with the required role. You will see Joseph occasionally get some time with Letang when the Penguins are trailing, just as Sullivan and Todd Reirden did in Vancouver.
However, a top-pairing defenseman has to be stay-home, protect the net front while Kris Letang does “Letang” things, and be able to read the game against the top-line competition. That’s a lot to ask of Joseph, who is basically a rookie.
I don’t think he’s a net-front defenseman. Jan Rutta would be a better option. Rutta hasn’t played the left side much since his tenure with the Chicago Blackhawks, but Joel Quenneville liked him on the left. Quenneville is a pretty good hockey coach, eh?
Who Gets the Blame?
We received over two dozen questions, but none dealt with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ biggest issue: puck management. On Wednesday night, the GWG was the result of Jake Guentzel’s turnover on the mid-wall. Marcus Pettersson cut to the slot, but Guentzel didn’t have a passing lane.
The Penguins were going for the win, but Guentzel is a smart player not prone to those mistakes. Yet, he turned it over, and the Penguins lost. That’s not on Sullivan or Hextall, and it is entirely indicative of a few players trying to do too much and a team out of sorts.
I know you want to blame one person — Dumoulin, DeSmith, Sullivan, Hextall, even Sidney Crosby got some blame in the questions today. It’s easier to focus on one person because one person can be replaced, get better, or be launched into the sun. However, it is a team-wide dysfunction. Some guys are trying too hard. Some guys are trying to fit in. The turnovers are the problem.
It’s a messy jelling process this year and the Penguins lack defensive shutdown ability. Don’t forget, the Penguins had to earn a lead before they gave it away. Hextall has some work to do.