The score in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ last loss — against the Seattle Kraken — does not matter. The Penguins faced the top teams in the Western Conference in Edmonton and Calgary and were humbled. The Penguins put forth a good first period against Edmonton Oilers and a good second period against the Calgary Flames and were justifiably winless on the four-game western trip.
Coach Mike Sullivan shuffled the defense pairings on Friday in Vancouver before returning them to “normal” with Brian Dumoulin beside Kris Letang in Seattle on Saturday.
For the hand-wringing and consternation beginning to surround the Penguins in the fall of 2022, the problems are neither terminal nor entirely fixed internally.
GM Ron Hextall’s help is probably needed.
Pittsburgh Penguins Adjustments
Tuesday against the Boston Bruins, the Penguins will try to play in the low zone and get to the net; they will play a bit of ugly hockey against the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins should be able to resume the hard and low play with bursts of speed that have defined them.
“I think the coaches showed us some clips (on Monday) of getting to the net front and trying to be around there a little bit more,” Jason Zucker said. “I think a lot of time when you’re fighting it, you’re trying to do too much. So I think we can keep it simple and get back to a simple game. That worked really well for us the first few … Get shots on the net, crash the net, banging some rebounds.”
But how much they can do is unknown. We know Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel will excel below the goal line. We know Evgeni Malkin will push the puck to his speedy wingers, including Zucker, and they can create the swarming offensive zone pressure.
But what of the other two lines?
So, why did all three western Canadian teams take the Penguins’ lunch money on the western trip for only the third time in franchise history and the first time since 1996? (Credit Penguins historian Bob Grove for the factoid).
The Penguins are a pretty good team. Actually, they are a very good team and one of the most talented squads in the league. Sullivan has vowed to provide answers to his team and did so on Monday during the video session at the first home practice in about 10 days.
You can pick your expressions. Simplify the game. Go to the net. Puck management.
“…And I think that’s been a part of not having that gritty down-low game. If you give up the puck too much and try to do too much in certain situations, (the puck) is going the other way,” Marcus Pettersson said. “So I think that’s a big problem.”
But for a low-game, the Pittsburgh Penguins mix might be too rich. Too much talent and not enough untalented players?
They are one of the most talented teams in the league. But talent doesn’t always equate to great hockey. The Penguins are missing the Mike Rowe players (the TV host, not the mid-1980s Penguins defenseman), who are good at the dirty jobs.
For example, the Penguins’ third line with Danton Heinen, Jeff Carter, and Kasperi Kapanen has three players with 20-goal ability. Kapanen and Carter have hit the plateau before. Heinen finished with 18 goals in 2021-22.
But none of the three is sandpaper or jam. They are not grinders or intense defenders who can wear down an opponent’s top line, nor are they good penalty killers (though Kapanen is showing promise in the early going).
In the past, the Penguins’ fourth line has taken those roles.
The Penguins’ fourth line has missed Teddy Blueger, who hasn’t yet played this season. Blueger also must resurrect his previous form, which declined after breaking his jaw last February.
Ryan Poehling is talented and has put forth a few good games but a few not-so-good games. He has four hits in nine games, which is a bit light for a fourth-line center role.
Josh Archibald has not been a factor, and neither has Brock McGinn. Each has one point (1-0-1) in nine games. McGinn has 12 hits and four blocks. Archibald has taken three penalties but registered 30 hits.
Without a hard-playing third line, the Penguins need a fourth line capable of battling the opponent’s top line, removing some burden from Sidney Crosby and providing a more successful PK.
The Penguins PK is 28th in the NHL.
However, the fourth line has not made a significant impact. The Penguins’ penalty kill, which relies on such players, hasn’t been right since late last season.
Marcus Pettersson has been the Penguins’ best defenseman this season. His work has been consistent, and his play has been steady.
When the Penguins are on their game, the defensemen present an advantage over most teams. Kris Letang and Jeff Petry are elite defensemen in their assigned roles.
However, the Penguins’ top pairing has been a problem over the last week. Brian Dumoulin was walked several times on the trip. Letang had problems with puck management, which put him in bad positions to chase opponents.
Petry was caught out of position or behind players and subsequently took several minor penalties on the trip. The turnovers and positioning will be fixed.
While Pettersson (plus-4) and Petry (plus-3) are on the positive side of the Penguins’ ledger, Dumoulin (minus-1) and Letang (minus-5) are in the red.
The third pairing with Jan Rutta (plus-6) and P.O Joseph (plus-3) is also well into positive territory.
Dumoulin getting walked is a problem. Fewer turnovers by forwards and defensemen will mitigate the issue, but as opponents get wise to the outside move, the responsibility will rest on Dumoulin to fix the problem.
The Penguins’ outlook can quickly be fixed with a mindset and dedication to the unglamorous jobs along the wall and corners. Hold the puck. It’s pretty tough for opponents to score when the Penguins have the puck.
That fix alone will solve many of the Penguins’ ills. However, the personnel issues in the bottom six, and by extension, the penalty kill and the top pairing, are issues to keep watching.
Those aren’t mindset issues. Those are real problems.
Mike Sullivan Master Class
On Monday, I asked Mike Sullivan if the Pittsburgh Penguins’ risky game could beget more risk and things snowball (I hate writing “I” did something, but in this case, it’s necessary because Sullivan gave a more than two-minute answer that I think you’ll find informative).
After pausing to consider the question, or his answer, Sullivan said:
“I don’t think so. I think when you’re a team that’s built like our team, we have many offensively gifted players. And I think part of their DNA is they look to make plays. The nature of the sport is there’s always risk-reward associated with playmaking.
“And we’re trying to find the sweet spot as a coaching staff and make sure our players understand what that looks like because certainly we want our players to make plays, we don’t want to take the sticks out of their hands — but we also can become a high-risk team through the process. And we’re trying to define what those parameters look like in our game.
“When we’re at our best, we make good decisions with and without the puck so that we mitigate some of the risks associated with our game. And I think constantly, that’s a conversation we have as a coaching staff with our players. And there’s always a fine line: there can be risk associated with playmaking, but there can also be risk away from the puck if we don’t stay on the right side of situations. Whether it be 50-50 puck battles, if we’re on the wrong side and we lose the battle on the rush, that’s an example of decision-making without the puck.
“And so, we have to be a team that’s hard to play against. And I think that’s the conversation we’re having with our team. And one of the easiest ways to be ‘easy to play against’ is to turn yourself into a high-risk team, both with or without the puck, because you give teams easy looks. And we’re trying to ensure that we chip some of those easy looks out of our game.
“There are a lot of good players in this league. They’re going to get scoring chances, but we need to make them work for every inch. We need to make them work for any quality looks they’ll get. We can’t hand them to them. And I thought on this particular trip, we weren’t our best there. But I know we’re capable. I know we’re capable of a much better game, a much more diligent game. And it’s our job to try to make sure we get there.”