CRANBERRY, Twp — Kyle Dubas didn’t soft-sell his support for Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. The Penguins’ president of hockey operations/GM didn’t equivocate or offer caveats with regard to his head coach but did seek to reframe recent comments he felt were misunderstood.
The Florida trip was not a make-or-break moment that could necessitate Penguins trades or other changes, but rather an important pair of games against teams they’re battling in the Eastern Conference standings. The losses did not trumpet coming changes, as many interpreted.
And for fans clamoring for a coaching change, Dubas also dumped a bucket full of ice water on those hopes.
“No. 1: Sully. I had my impressions coming in and my respect for him — being with him every day, and not only seeing his attention to detail on the systems, but his attention to detail with players and coaching them individually and personally, I think we’re very fortunate to have Mike,” said Dubas. “And so, do I think that he’s the right person for this job now and far to the future? I absolutely do. So I need to continue to support the coaching staff as best I can and help us get this going in the right direction.”
The Penguins are one game under .500, are winless in their last four, and have lost three straight regulation. It has been exactly one month since the power play scored, and the unit is 0-for-37 in that time. Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith have gone cold on the second line. The bottom six forward crew is decimated by injury. It has been largely absent from the score sheets before and since injuries accumulated like snowflakes on the mountain that the team is figuratively trying to climb.
“Whenever you’re in a hole, the first step is to stop digging,” Dubas said with a bit of gallows humor.
Since starting 3-6-0, the Penguins won five straight but have since tanked again with just three wins and three loser points in their last 11 games. The cratering power play has drawn attention like photographers to a Donald Trump court appearance.
Coaches have tinkered, toyed with, and made near-wholesale changes to no avail. Split Sidney Crosby and Malkin? Tried it. Put Kris Letang back on top? Tried it. Sunday, coaches even put a rookie with two NHL games experience on the top unit.
Dubas also shared an interesting bit of behind-the-scenes info. One might think Erik Karlsson is a wallflower in the power play meeting with Crosby and Malkin or that he’s deferring to them.
This reporter wondered.
However, according to Dubas, Karlsson is the guy who questions everything, suggests new ideas, pushes aside the status quo, tries to find a solution, and is looking for his role in it.
“Erik, in my view, has been a great addition, spurring conversation on how we can continue to evolve and change,” said Dubas. “He doesn’t accept the status quo in his own game or others’ (games) in the way that we should go about things. Especially as he views his role on the power play- he’s the quarterback of it- he takes that role seriously. He’s not afraid to talk to the players about the way that it’s going. And I think that for me is very refreshing.”
It’s interesting to note that Karlsson is not intimidated by the big three and is not afraid to rock that boat.
The power play has indeed dragged down the team, clicking at 9.4%. Dubas didn’t steer away from that, either. He admitted the struggles create not just frustration but the heaviest feeling in the arena, though he also took the stance the players are too good not to figure it out.
The GM also put the chemistry of those core players and Erik Karlsson in context; when a team is winning, many think it’s because of chemistry. When a team is losing, they haven’t jelled. Dubas was not ready to pick a side yet.
“I think chemistry is always an interesting dynamic within a professional sports team. When a team does really well, people say it’s because of the chemistry,” Dubas said. “When the team doesn’t win, they haven’t jelled yet. When we won those five games in a row, it was, ‘They’re really coming together.’ Now that we have struggled, it’s all ‘maybe they haven’t jelled.’ I don’t know is probably the answer.”
The Penguins’ chemistry has certainly been a point of concern, with a bevy of new players and more new faces necessitated by the growing injury list. Dubas admitted he expected defenseman Ryan Graves to be slow to adapt–that was the story in both Colorado and New Jersey. He was unconcerned about the current trajectory of his big defenseman.
However, he challenged the depth defensemen to seize their roles, too. The team had nine defensemen at practice, though they will waive Dmitri Samorukov with the intent to send him back to the WBS Penguins. Samorukov’s contract was converted from an AHL deal to an NHL deal to call him up weeks ago when the injuries beset the blue line.
Otherwise, there are four defensemen for two spots. John Ludvig and Ryan Shea have been the Penguins’ third pairing, but Chad Ruhwedel and P.O Joseph are ready to return.
There might be only room for three, and Dubas specifically threw down a challenge.
“I’d like for one of those guys, P.O, Chad, Ryan Shea, (or) John Ludvig, to really take hold and run with it,” said Dubas. “That’s what we’re waiting for from all of our depth guys. The opportunity is massive, and somebody has to run with it. Otherwise, you have to continue to search for the players that will.”
It probably wasn’t the blow it up, trade everyone, get rid of the rest fire and brimstone presser that some had hoped. Instead, Dubas took ownership of the bottom six struggles and said if the unit didn’t have the proper personnel to be successful, that was on him.
It’s only been six months since Dubas took the job, but it’s clear, for better or worse, that this is his team, and even if the plan isn’t going well, at least there is one.