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Kingerski: After This Underachievement, Penguins Must Clean House



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin

The Pittsburgh Penguins are still an odds-on favorite to make their 17th consecutive playoff appearance. By NHL standards, the Penguins are above .500, but their inexplicable inability to consistently put their best on the ice tells us what we need to know about this team.

Thursday, the Penguins host the Nashville Predators in the first leg of a three-game homestand, perhaps the most important, or perilous, late-season stretch in the Sidney Crosby era.

Tuesday, the playoffs were a period away from being assured. But the Penguins lost, and today, those playoff hopes are in trouble.

Do not rule out a playoff upset if they get in. Nor should anyone pound their chest with an “I told you so” if or when the Penguins are quickly dismissed from Lord Stanley’s big dance due to a malodorous mix of leaky goaltending, inconsistency, turnovers, and a splash of Old Spice.

Regardless of the coming result, be it missing the playoffs or making it to the Eastern Conference final, the Pittsburgh Penguins must clean house after the season.

A playoff berth will not erase what has otherwise been a largely underachieving, unacceptable season.

Mike Sullivan should be safe. One thing GM Ron Hextall got right a month before the NHL trade deadline was that any player who tuned out Sullivan, would be sent packing, and not the coach.

That’s not giving Sullivan a lifetime appointment but is respecting his ability to out-coach his opponents when he has a team willing or able to follow directions.

However, it is also quite possible Sullivan’s message is no longer landing on open ears and hungry hearts. With the oldest team in the NHL sporting an average age over 30, it’s a near-certainty that no coach’s message would be eagerly received.

And that is the part that must change.

The Penguins need a total retooling of the veteran players surrounding Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. No one else should be safe, including Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and Jeff Petry.

Shuffling the fringes of the roster won’t be good enough.

If you comment that Sullivan won’t play young players or they refuse to bring up anyone from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, you will be sent directly to jail, do not pass Go, and do not collect $200.

And before you leap to defend your favorite player (We know each other, I can hear your keyboard pounding already), understand that the Penguins have plenty of talented hockey players. One year, good or bad, does not make or break a player like Bryan Rust.

The Penguins have many ingredients to be a successful team.

Yet they’re not one.

Management must stretch out its chain and be brutally honest about the weak links and shortcomings it can address. It did not do that effectively last summer and cannot repeat that mistake.

Jeff Carter, and his salary-cap hit, will be a fixture for another year. That part you’ll have to accept, but the rest should be under consideration.

It’s not as if the team hasn’t shown an ability to play exceptional hockey. Still, the inability to reach premium levels is as problematic as having those levels, but an undeniable inability to maintain them.

Or outright sabotage them.

The Penguins are less than the sum of their parts. To be kind, they lack the mental edge they once had. For all of their talent, they suffer from mental and physical breakdowns and a frequent lack of motivation, leading to far too many “unacceptable” games in which “we were outplayed.”

Both oldies but goodies were Top 40 hits Tuesday, after the 7-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

All of your good players for all of our bad players on the NHL trade market doesn’t work. And real change is needed, regardless of loyalties.

The Penguins’ changes should not be limited to established players, either. Hextall and his staff should be asked pointed and uncomfortable questions by those above them.

The “rebuilding” side of Hextall’s plan is going far worse than the maintenance side.

Where are the NCAA free agents? The previous regimes netted NHL contributors like Drew O’Connor, Anthony Angello, John Marino (pending NCAA and others.

Will they land any European free agents? They already missed on Valtteri Pulli, who signed with the San Jose Sharks.

Why are the W-B/S Penguins even worse off now than they were? Make no mistake, they are almost a tire fire. They have the third-fewest wins (25) in the AHL.

Part of the GM’s job is overseeing the farm team, too. That’s not going well at all.

Whether or not the Penguins miss the playoffs depends on the next eight games, but the grade for the season should factor far more than the next two weeks. The season must be defined by the extraordinary number of failures, too.

Hextall and many players have to answer for the months of underachieving.

There can only be one to three sacred cows. And it seems a gale force of fresh winds must blow through the Pittsburgh Penguins to avoid another frustrating winter of expectations, cliches, and “unacceptable” performances.