Mike Sullivan’s loyalty to the most-tenured members of the Pittsburgh Penguins — and some of their long-serving teammates — is understandable.
Probably even commendable.
After all, he’s won Stanley Cups with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Brian Dumoulin, and they continue to make up much of the foundation of his team,
They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt from Sullivan and his staff, and that presumably is why blunders that might get a teammate stapled to the far end of the bench rarely seem to cost one of them a second of ice time.
But the guys routinely deployed on the power play — specifically, the No. 1 unit — just might have exhausted their rights to that duty.
For while there are plenty of reasons the Penguins are stranded in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and on the outer edge of the Eastern Conference playoff field, one of the most obvious is their wildly underachieving power play.
It is tied for 18th place in the NHL rankings with a conversion rate of 20.6 percent. That would seem comically low for a group with so much talent, if it weren’t so costly.
Fourteen of the Penguins’ first 39 games have been decided by one goal (not counting those in which one of the clubs scored an empty-netter), and they have won precisely five of those.
And the effectiveness of their power play was a major factor in determining how most of those played out.
They were 6-for-18 with the extra man in their five victories, 5-for-28 in the ones they lost, whether in regulation or overtime/shootout.
They failed to get a power-play goal in five of their nine defeats, and scored two in just one of them. Ironically, that pair came in their 5-4 loss to Detroit Dec. 28, when the Penguins squandered a 4-0 lead in what became their most gut-wrenching defeat so far this season.
Power plays — even the best ones — are notoriously cyclical, and after sputtering through much of October and November, the Pittsburgh Penguins scored at least one man-advantage goal in each of their first 10 games last month.
It was not realistic to expect them to sustain that pace — remember, it’s not a cycle if there’s not a downturn — but it’s unlikely that anyone foresaw their power play scoring in just one of the six games that followed that surge.
That includes their current 0-for-21 slump during the past four games, three of which were losses.
Being without either of their top right-shot point men, Letang and Jeff Petry, obviously didn’t help, but their absences don’t fully explain why the Penguins’ power play often has looked like a basketball team trying to set up a three-point shot, with endless passing around the perimeter.
It is an article of faith in hockey that getting people and pucks to the net is critical to scoring when a team is up a man, and the Penguins haven’t done much of either during the past four games.
In those 21 failed power plays, which spanned a total of 38 minutes and four seconds (and included more than a half-minute of 5-on-3 play), they generated just 27 shots on goal.
One of the game’s most popular adages is that you don’t score on 100 percent of the shots that you don’t take.
Obviously, throwing pucks haphazardly at the net is unlikely to be productive. It’s important to have a reasonably clear shooting lane, but with an extra man, establishing one is a reasonable objective.
And even if the initial shot is stopped, chaos often follows. There can be rebounds and deflections, or the puck caroming off skates. None of that is an issue when the club with the man-advantage is content to passively move the puck along the boards and between the points.
Ty Smith has shown a willingness to shoot during his brief time with the Penguins — he’s averaged 3.25 shots in his first four games — but he can’t be the only one.
And if that means replacing an established veteran or two on the top power play with a less skilled guy who plays with more of a shooter’s mentality, it’s worth a try, at least until the Pittsburgh Penguins can regain the rhythm they had during that 10-game run they had last month.
Would it work? There’s no guarantee. But a reconfigured No. 1 unit couldn’t score fewer goals in 21 tries than the current group has during the past four games. (And it probably wouldn’t give up as many shorthanded chances.)
Sure, personnel changes — even temporary ones — might cause some hard feelings, bruise some egos.
But a coach’s primary loyalty has to be to his team, regardless of the bonds he might have with individual players.