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Penguins Mailbag: Struggling Star Players, Pressure on Ron Hextall



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.