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Penguins Mailbag: Struggling Star Players, Pressure on Ron Hextall

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, NHL news

ST. PAUL — This has gone on long enough. The Pittsburgh Penguins are wrapping their arms around two wins in 11 games with an insistence they need to play a 60-minute game. Sidney Crosby does not look like himself, Bryan Rust has gone ice cold, and fans are taking no prisoners.

Don’t worry, Crosby still looks like Sidney Crosby in person. However, his play bears little resemblance to the dominant play for which he is known.

And therein lies part of the problem. Evgeni Malkin is the star player who is most playing like a star, but his puck management has been as generous as we all hope to be in the holiday season.

And fans are not happy. The friction of getting to PPG Paints Arena (because it seems the city tore up every street around PPG Paints Arena and half of the streets leading to it) is only a fraction of the problem. There were thousands of empty seats until later in the first period on Tuesday. Even then, Penguins games are obviously not sell-outs.

Though the symbolism of messy construction keeping Penguins fans away is pretty thick, eh?

Pittsburgh Penguins Mailbag:

 

Answer: As dynamic as Rust has been over the last few years, he’s also had a few barren patches. He doesn’t look to be injured — he hasn’t scampered off to the trainers’ room after games or practices. He did tease his locker stall neighbor Jason Zucker. Rust swung his legs up on the bench for Zucker to untie the skates before quickly pulling back with a laugh, “You’ll tie them in knots!”

Rust has also taken a few of the losses hard. I don’t recall which western city, but Rust sat in his stall, in full gear, after the game.

My guess would be he is trying too hard. Gripping the stick a bit too tightly. He gives a damn. He’ll be fine but stuck in the quicksand with everyone else.

Answer: I probably could, and should, write a lot more about the Penguins’ top players’ struggles. Things are going wrong for the best players, and Letang isn’t immune. I think Letang and the company are the victims of their situation. They “know” they are a good team.

In the words of Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?”

I threw a few elbows in my Pittsburgh Penguins postgame column Tuesday night. There is a problem with the Penguins’ approach/mindset/attitude. To use Mike Sullivan’s lexicon, they lack urgency. While Letang and Crosby disagreed, there’s no other way to explain consistently bad starts, lax play at the beginning and end of periods, and the failure to mount heavy pressure in the third periods.

They’re making incredible mistakes. Sometimes, they look like a team of rookies.

“…Those are the areas — (if) we can take those out of our game so that if we have some breakdowns, we have support built in,” Sullivan said Tuesday night. “And I just think there have been moments in some of these games where we, for whatever reason, get away from it, and it seems like in those moments, the puck ends up in the back of our net.”

And — especially against Toronto — teams are coming straight at the Penguins’ top pair. Toronto attacked them. It’s a perfect storm. The forwards aren’t protecting the defense, which puts additional pressure on the defensemen, which allows teams to get deep on the Penguins’ defensemen, which creates additional pressure for everyone to defend, which creates additional pressure for the stars to do “more,” and things spiral.

Things will get worse until the Penguins make them better. I think the situation is starting to worry folks.

There was only one “mistake.” Kasperi Kapanen is probably one the goalie would like back. Evgeni Malkin would have been the best center on the market. Kris Letang would have been the top defenseman, and Casey DeSmith the best backup goalie. Danton Heinen at $1 million — will anyone argue that value?

I know it — I hear it all the time — many of you wanted to rebuild. But that ship has sailed. It seems a waste of energy to keep revisiting the offseason unless you have a Delorean with a flux capacitor and some pretty gnarly Nike hightops.

What style are you referring to? The run-and-gun, wide-open transition game. They know they can’t play that way. I suspect part of the Penguins’ cavalcade of mistakes is Sullivan and Todd Reirden tweaking the system, which Sullivan does every season. This isn’t a Dan Bylsma situation, but it doesn’t look good, either.

Sullivan has hinted about building more puck support into the system. Is learning the new tweaks leading to some instability?

I do think there is a bit of a disconnect between how the Penguins have to play (low zone, hard, gritty, to the net) and how they are constructed beyond the top six.

Are Rust, Zucker, Brock McGinn, Teddy Blueger, and Crosby slower? Brian Dumoulin isn’t moving laterally as well as he did, but he is the only one suffering a movement decline. The league, especially the lesser teams in the Eastern Conference, are exponentially faster than they were.

I could have sworn this keyboard (not this exact one, I’ve bought a new laptop since) used to expressly warn fans that the league was closing the speed gap and the Pittsburgh Penguins needed more than “speed” to win. The speed differential between teams is now very small, so what else can they do to win games?

That is the question.

The pressure is mounting on Hextall to get more help for that question, too.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Frank
Frank
15 days ago

In a game where split seconds make all the difference in the world . .. it is not that the Penguins have gotten slower as much as the rest of the league is running faster and on younger legs. You can talk about veteran experience and skill all day, but if you are getting to the puck one second later than someone 8 years younger . . . well . . . what you did in 2016 does not really factor in so much. The issue for the Penguins is not that they re-signed so many vets last summer .… Read more »

Alan Smith
15 days ago
Reply to  Frank

Please quit commenting! Your hard core insights are depressing! Can’t we just watch and cheer?

Pete
Pete
15 days ago
Reply to  Alan Smith

LOL
Maybe you should quit.
You were the one spewing that nonsense about how the Pens were the best talented offense in the NHL.
You still believe that?

wesman33
wesman33
15 days ago

Come on Dan it is really ok to beat up Crosby’s play without including Malkin as a problem in the same breath. What does geno have to do without getting a derogatory remark from you. 71 is playing extremely well all around hockey. It really is ok to print that and criticize Crosby at the same time. No one will hunt you down for being honest!!!!!

wesman33
wesman33
15 days ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Seems like I pushed the wrong button there. lol I do enjoy reading the best pens coverage on phn and joined well before things have taken off for you. Keep up the good work. From a Loyal follower

Alan Smith
15 days ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Maybe allow 25 words or less? They should coach or scout!

Uros
Uros
15 days ago

Some players, GM, tactics, this and that. This is a team, and a very well constructed team, that should be dominant. The truth is, whatever players, GMs and tactics you put out there, you’re not doing anything if the team (not this or that player) isn’t executing with hunger, emotion and effort. So, as far as I’m concerned, there are no problems other than, save a few exceptions, the team is half assing it. Before diving into adjustments and whatnot, Sully should see if he’s still the man that can spark the will and desire in players. I adore Sullivan… Read more »

Last edited 15 days ago by Uros
Alan Smith
15 days ago
Reply to  Uros

Tough crew to balance! Gifted, great awareness and good defensive pursuit by each and every one of them. Can’t hit! No one does! Need to get some grit! I think they don’t want to get hurt with so many games to still play! Got to do the constant defensive thing like everyone plays these days! Really miss the run and gun! Entire periods and no goals!

ric Jefferies
ric Jefferies
15 days ago

Speed of play may refer to the player’s physical prowess, quickness is puck movement. So an “old” player can compensate for being such by passing the puck more often not necessarily toward the opponents goal. Puck movement is ultimately what counts. think Russian 5 style.

Wasnt
15 days ago
Reply to  ric Jefferies

Look at the Bruins, that top line isn’t getting any younger

kingpuck
kingpuck
15 days ago
Reply to  Wasnt

But they have a very well-balanced team. Tough as any team in the league. Pasternak will finish check like he means them because “it’s expected” and he is “protected”. And they have a great blend of youth and skill mixed in there, oh and their star players are very accountable and will call their own game dogshit if appropriate (Mr. Letang, are you listening?)

Alan Smith
15 days ago
Reply to  kingpuck

Like the read until the angry ending!

Kevin
Kevin
15 days ago

I think we had a better team last year and we lost it from injuries. I think this all falls back on Hextall and the way he rebuilt the team. He traded some good players to address the salary cap and picked up some halfway decent players.

Alan Smith
15 days ago

You could get critical of maybe 16 teams who are missing things or not playing to their potential every night! Let’s just stay close in the standings for a wild card! I think crowd size on a Tuesday, with lousy weather and the economy is the real reason! Bet 500,000 Pens saw the game on their screens! Poehing hopefully has a great night for home coming! Having won a state HS championship with 3 brothers sounds awesome! Malkin in his 1000th game! No wonder they are bored! Wish they would start the playoffs now!

stan
15 days ago

Fans should stay home, maybe that would get ownership’s attention.

Bill Maloni
Bill Maloni
14 days ago

I like the Q’s and A’s.