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Penguins Confront What Went Wrong, ‘Critical Elements’

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Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins. And NHL trade chatter.

It is, Mike Sullivan said Thursday, still too early to offer an in-depth assessment of all that went wrong for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2023-24 season.

The coaching staff and management will have a long — much too long, actually — offseason to assess the granular details of the team’s failings, and what should be done to enhance the chances that they’re not sitting out the Stanley Cup playoffs for a third consecutive spring in 2025.

But even though he wasn’t prepared to offer a detailed breakdown of the Penguins’ shortcomings during the season that ended Wednesday night, Sullivan did point out a few that effectively doomed his team to finish outside the Eastern Conference playoff field.

There weren’t many surprises — he cited the Penguins’ inability to hold leads and their often-inept power play, which scored on just 15.3 percent of its chances — but it was clear he was distressed by those flaws.

“As a group, there are certain aspects of our game that we can improve upon to give ourselves a better chance to be successful,” he said. “Our ability to manage games, to control momentum, is a critical aspect. For example, playing with leads and understanding the risk-reward relationship in those scenarios, and being harder to play against. I think that’s an important element of winning.

“Obviously, our power play was an area that was a challenge for us this year. That’s an obvious opportunity for growth. Those are just some things I’ve had conversations with our coaching staff for quite a little while now on how we can be proactive in those areas and give us a better chance to win.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins finished three points out of a playoff spot. Had they avoided squandering leads on a regular basis, they likely would be preparing for a first-round series now, rather than preparing to scatter across the globe.

“We lost a lot of leads,” Bryan Rust said. “I’m not really sure what the reason was, but we had a lot of games where we had one-, two-, three-goal leads and we found a way to either lose points or lose games, altogether. When things are this close in the league, you can’t afford to have those things happen.”

Of course, the Penguins didn’t lose all the games in which they were unable to protect a lead. And of the ones they lost, defeat didn’t always come in regulation.

Fact is, they rarely emerged from games that extended beyond the third period with a second point. The Pittsburgh Penguins won just six of those 18 games, including a 4-9 mark in the ones settled during the five-minute overtime.

That’s almost inconceivable for a team with the kind of skilled individuals — guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang, among others — the Penguins have.

But their shabby overtime record wasn’t just a by-product of bad luck.

“We didn’t do as good a job as we’re capable of with the possession game, and that’s an essential element of overtime,” Sullivan said. “There’s a lot that goes into that. We’ve got to be more selective on when we choose to attack. It starts with our shot selection, because usually when you watch overtimes, if a shot on goal takes place, it can set off a domino effect of events after that, just because there are not a lot of players on the ice.

“I didn’t think we were as diligent with our possession game and using line changes to out-change teams and have the ability to take advantage of a fatigued group on the ice. That’s a strategy we’ve talked about a lot with our guys, starting from training camp. That was an area where I don’t think we took advantage, like we could have.

“On the defensive side, it boils down to man-on-man. It’s hard to do anything else. You have to defend hard when you’re on the ice. But the possession game, I think, is such a critical element of it, because it sets up a lot of what takes place. That’s an important strategy that we have to get better at.”

Although the Penguins entered their meaningless regular-season finale against the New York Islanders Wednesday on an 8-1-3 roll, that wasn’t enough to lift them out of the hole they dug for themselves.

It was a hole few, if any, of them thought possible when the season began.

“I think we’re all definitely a little bit disappointed — not a little, a lot disappointed — with how this year turned out,” Rust said.

While their 88 points might not have been an accurate reflection of their personnel, the Pittsburgh Penguins need not look outside their locker room for an explanation of why the season went sour.

“I think we had a much better team than where we ended up,” Karlsson said. “That’s on all of us.”

And it’s one more thing for the coaches and front office to analyze in the months ahead.