The Pittsburgh Penguins power play is broken. After 23 games, the power play has scored in just four of those games. The team has seven power-play goals in 64 attempts, though one of those was a two-man advantage, and one was a 4v3 OT power play.
They have also allowed four shorthanded goals against.
Helmed by reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, who exceeded the 100-point mark last season, there were more than reasonable expectations the power play would be a strength.
It’s been quite the opposite. The faceplant has been so forceful that a noseprint has been left in the mud.
Sunday at Penguins practice, coach Mike Sullivan made his third personnel shuffle in a week when he put defenseman Kris Letang at the top of the power play unit and slid Karlsson to a shooting position on the mid-wall.
It’s a similar setup to the 5-man unit that started the season, but then Karlsson and Letang were flipped, and that unit flopped.
Everyone is feeling urgency.
The team has gone 0-for-5 in a pair of one-goal losses to Metro Division rivals, the New York Rangers and Philadephia Flyers. Coaches have tried a few personnel and role changes, moving Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin onto different units, putting Radim Zohorna at the net front, trying Lars Eller near the net, and presumably hours of prayer.
The primary constant has been Crosby and Karlsson on PP1.
The other constant has been a distinct lack of success.
Surely, a power play does not need to be complicated or complex to succeed. One team has one more player. Even the worst teams in the league can figure it out.
So how much of the Penguins power play struggles are a lack of chemistry between the Penguins’ core and the newbie Karlsson?
Recall Karlsson’s answer last month, “Someone needs to take charge.”
And Saturday morning, he answered the jelling questions like this.
“Yes and no. I think things like that take time. (It’s) obviously a lot better than it was two months ago. And I feel like it’s normal coming in here now for everybody because we’re familiar with each other on a somewhat personal level, and the chemistry on the ice and stuff like that,” Karlsson said. “I think the more time you give, it’s going to get — I mean, just look at the guys that have been here together for 17, 18 years. You just don’t get that. You forget they’ve played together for a long time, and it’s the same for everybody else. As we move forward, I think it’s just going to get better and better.
“I don’t think it’s at a stage where we want it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be. I think I might be retired in time for that. But it’s getting better, and it’s nice. I think that it’s been as good as possibly can be.”
There’s no question the boys are getting along personally. Nothing to the contrary should be inferred. Saturday, during the morning skate, Karlsson belly laughed like the star of an Instagram baby video when Evgeni Malkin tripped over someone during a drill. Karlsson’s cackle echoed in the empty arena, and he laughed through the rest of his shift in the drill.
The Pittsburgh Hockey Now team had a good chuckle at Karlsson’s chuckle.
But on the ice, the chemistry is a different matter, especially on the power play when the focus is on cohesion and coordinated plays.
It sure seemed that Karlsson implied that he feels he’s playing catchup or will never achieve the level of intuitive chemistry with the group of players who have been together since they were pimply-faced teenagers (or 20 years old for Evgeni Malkin).
The Penguins core has carried this franchise for nearly 20 years. Karlsson has been the primary focal point for the Ottawa Senators and the San Jose Sharks. In fact, with the Sharks, there were times over the previous couple of seasons in which he was the ONLY focal point.
Everyone is accustomed to doing things their own way.
Perhaps they’re painting the Sistine Chapel. It will take months to integrate Karlsson to Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, but the finished product will be a masterpiece.
Sullivan likes to say they don’t want to take the stick out of the star players’ hands because they can do things intuitively that cannot be taught.
But after 23 games, perhaps it is pounding a square peg in a round hole until someone–Karlsson or Kris Letang–takes control on the ice, a coach takes firm control off the ice, or president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas adds some fizzy to the power play water from the external.
Taking the stick out of their hands could do no worse but may be the necessary start.
Penguins Metro Fails
Not since the first week of the NHL regular season, when the Penguins beat the Washington Capitals, have they beaten a team ahead of them in the Metro Division. They’re 0-3-1 after the shootout loss to the Flyers Saturday night.
And the Flyers game sure felt like a loss, even with a point. Aside from the blowout defeat to the New Jersey Devils, the Penguins have lost one-goal games to the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, and the Flyers.
Why or how the Penguins can beat the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs of the Atlantic Division but not their rivals is another mystery that goes far beyond Daphne, Fred, and Thelma’s sleuthing capabilities.
The high-profile losses wipe clean the successes against inter-division and inter-conference opponents. An 11-10-2 record also means more losses than wins.
Like the power play failure, it does not make sense but must be solved, or another long summer awaits.
Mark Pysyk signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Calgary Flames. He was released last week from his PTO with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who needed the veteran spot. Given the Penguins’ lack of right-handed defensemen in the organization, Pysyk seemed a no-brainer. It just never came together.
Jake Guentzel’s future remains a polarizing debate. Guentzel’s numbers are on a Hall of Fame track, and he’s the best winger to play beside Crosby. Some high-end players will be UFAs in July, and the Penguins are set to clear about $10 million off the books. Watching him work with Crosby, it’s hard to imagine them apart. Thinking of the long-term implications of signing Guentzel to a six-year deal, it’s hard to imagine him finishing it or it not becoming an albatross contract.
Of course, if the goal is winning, and if the Penguins don’t start winning, why would the Penguins make a bad long-term investment to satisfy the immediate?
This would be Sam Poulin’s big chance to get back into the NHL if he were healthy. Instead of recalling Joona Koppanen to fill in for the injured Noel Acciari, there’s a good chance it would have been Poulin. It’s a missed opportunity, and those become less plentiful for a player who is more than four years from his draft day.