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Kingerski: Festering Penguins Problems; Time for Hextall to Start Fixing

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Ron Hextall, NHL trade

LAS VEGAS — Jake Guentzel called the Penguins’ first-period effort in their loss to the Vegas Golden Knights unacceptable. Sidney Crosby said he hopes his team meets the challenge of losing (again and again) and does something about it. But make no mistake, it isn’t one game. The problems with Pittsburgh Penguins are only getting bigger.

And it is time for GM Ron Hextall to start fixing things.

The Penguins assume they’re a good team, and in that assumption lies the Penguins’ most significant problem. Call it whistling past the graveyard, denial, stubbornness, or obtuse. That feeling seems to run north of the locker room through GM’s office.

Yet in 38 games, they’ve won only 19. Their goal differential is a paltry plus-8.

They have shown they can be a good team. They’ve also lost as much as they’ve won.

For a moment, the Penguins silenced the doubts and worries. This keyboard wrote that Hextall probably got it right by not making a shakeup trade. But when the problems return with a vengeance, in much the same way, it is time to face facts.

One big losing streak happens to all teams. But two? The Penguins are flirting with flushing 25% or more of their season.

If it happens twice, it will happen a third time. It’s a pattern. It’s reality.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were beaten by their Metro Division rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes twice, and New Jersey Devils. If those games were measuring sticks, the Penguins would be short.

The biggest problems are struggling to hold leads, getting depth scoring, or at least puck possession. And the little problems are feeding a bigger problem: struggling to find the emotional engagement necessary to win. When pushed, they are not pushing back.

“When the opposing team gets some momentum or some pressure, sometimes we just need a shift or two just in the offensive zone,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “Try to get some swagger and momentum back on our side.”

When the Boston Bruins attacked in the third period of the Winter Classic, or when the Vegas Golden Knights pounced in the first period Thursday, the Penguins didn’t have a response.

Despite the Penguins’ 19-3-3 run, they again find themselves out of the playoff seedings. Other teams win, too. Other teams are learning to win.

Sure, coach Mike Sullivan had to stop practice on Wednesday, and yes, PHN noted the odd vibe in the Penguins locker room. Still, one day does not define a team, but the myriad of games or deciding periods in which the league’s oldest team has no-showed for significant portions does define them.

The lack of attention to defensive zone coverage, the same lines having the same issues getting out of their zone, and the lack of gritty play does define them.

Yes, the Penguins will get better when Kris Letang and Jeff Petry return to the lineup. Both returns seem imminent. Petry is eligible to come off LTIR for the game Sunday against the Arizona Coyotes.

But a few wins won’t cure what ails the Penguins.

Perhaps on all levels of the organization, from the players to the GM’s office, the Penguins need to have a grand realization of their station.

This isn’t good enough. The Penguins need a shakeup.

With figurative pennies of salary cap space, Hextall can’t swing the old-school Craig Patrick-style blockbuster. He won’t get Rick Tocchet for Mark Recchi or Ron Francis for John Cullen.

A Penguins trade could address several needs, from depth scoring to greater mobility on the blue line. Perhaps just a spark plug type player who can inject some energy on those dreary nights. Which need Hextall addresses seems secondary to the fact a need, any of the needs, are addressed. They need new voices and new spirits added to a mix that is going flat.

The Penguins are in trouble. And this — this level of play, this roster — isn’t good enough if they hope to make one more good run.

Your eyes can see it. Players that have been relied upon for several seasons are not providing the same level of play. We don’t need to name names. Despite as many losses as wins this season, I can count only once when the Penguins were genuinely angry after a game — after the second Carolina loss on the edge of the NHL holiday break.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are 19 wins in 38 games good. It’s time a few things changed. It’s time for Hextall to shake up the Penguins.

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.