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Penguins Thoughts: Criticizing & Defending Sullivan; Would Letang or Malkin Ever?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang

Three wins in nine games will invite a lot of criticism. Whether fans realize it or not, the disappointment of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bad start has several layers, beginning with the renewed optimism after president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas executed the flawless Erik Karlsson trade and ending with a great desire to see Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang succeed one more time.

That thought has been percolating with me for some time. These guys have not just been bonded for 18 years, but they’ve been with you for 18 years, too. They’ve been on your TV screens almost as long as Law and Order. They’ve been around for one-third, half, and, in many cases, almost your entire hockey fan life.

Sure, there are the folks who would sooner eat raw broccoli covered in ketchup than admit Letang is a Hall of Fame defenseman, and there are people who seemingly live for the moment that Malkin makes a turnover. But I know those are only a few people who manage to get loud on X or comment sections. The fanbase at large loves these guys.

And sometimes love means a deeper frustration or anger.

I get the empty seats. I get the roiling anger that is seeping from the pores of the fingers guiding the electronic delivery systems that we all use to communicate.

The Penguins have a vital three-game set beginning Saturday in San Jose. If you haven’t looked ahead, the San Jose Sharks stink. They were bad with Erik Karlsson, and without him, they’re worse. They lost the first nine games of the season (0-8-1-). Should the Penguins lose there or lose two of three on the trip, they’ll return home with four wins in 12 games.

That’s not good enough, and the real playoff teams are beginning to separate themselves while the Penguins are tied with the Chicago Blackhawks at the bottom of the league. Ironic, eh? Sidney Crosby and Connor Bedard connected at the bottom.

The first-round pick that Dubas included in the Karlsson trade is top-10 protected, but if they keep it this year, there’s no protection next year.

Like you, I wonder if this ship continues to sink, would any of the big three accept assignment elsewhere? Or is the emotional attachment on all sides too great?

Mike Sullivan

This December will be eight years since Mike Sullivan took over the Pittsburgh Penguins bench. It’s been one of the most successful tenures in the salary cap era and certainly the most successful in the Penguins’ history.

This summer brought two bits of news regarding the Penguins hierarchy. The first was the inside chatter that as the Fenway Sports Group became more involved, they became more impressed with Sullivan’s hockey mind.

That’s long been an overlooked feature; in conversations with Pittsburgh Hockey Now, everyone from Scotty Bowman to coaching colleagues has cited it as one of his best attributes.

And that’s one of the reasons why it doesn’t feel like Sullivan is on the hot seat despite the growing anger. But the anger is understandable because the paper roster should be one of the better teams in the NHL.

And there aren’t many answers as to why the Penguins continue to make game-breaking gaffes, fail to play to their potential, or (like the loss to Dallas) simply forget all responsibility.

Few coaches last five years, certainly not eight. Hockey coaches are hired to be fired is the mantra.

Defending Sullivan is fairly easy. He’s one of the best hockey coaches in the league. Period. His system is tailored to his players’ strengths, and the domination they’ve unleashed when the team is engaged is probably further proof that the coach and team are still a good fit. The adjustments in the 4-0 win over the Colorado Avalanche were spot on.

However, the team’s absentmindedness regarding their defensive assignments is troubling.

“Some games we’ve been attacking so hard, and we kind of lose our head a little bit and get frustrated that we don’t score,” defenseman Marcus Pettersson said Tuesday.

Sullivan’s recent lineup choices have only enhanced criticisms, too. The Penguins’ fourth line is struggling to hold up its end of the bargain. The trio has allowed only one goal but scored none. Worse, the trio has not provided much tangible benefit beyond not getting scored upon.

Vinnie Hinostroza is the type of player who could provide an upgrade to Jeff Carter on the right wing of the line and a significant speed upgrade. However, Hinostroza has watched the last two games and has not yet taken a regular line spot in practice.

Similar things can be said about third-pair defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. On the one hand, Ruhwedel is the only right-handed option for the third pairing, but on the other, he has not performed to optimal capabilities. Turnovers and speedy players getting behind him have been a problem.

No, I can’t explain or agree with the nightly lineup.

Mark Pysyk has been skating and working out around the arena and practice facility as part of his rehab. Since he was injured while on a PTO, he still has a locker stall in the Penguins locker room and is able to work out. One wonders if it’s still possible that he’ll join the team when healthy.

Perhaps when healthy, John Ludvig will return to the right-side pairing as he did for one game. Ryan Shea also got some time on the right in preseason. One wonders what he and P.O Joseph might accomplish.

However, while the lineup decisions might be disagreeable, they’re far from a fireable offense. What will determine Sullivan’s fate is winning and losing. And the Penguins need to start winning. Soon.

And Kyle Dubas could probably help with a little bit (or a lot) of tinkering, too. A Penguins trade or two could help around the edges of the lineup.