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Three Things Penguins Still Can Accomplish This Season



Penguins Bench Mike Sullivan Todd Reirden

It’s been a lot of years since the Pittsburgh Penguins have been in a situation like this.

They have 12 regular-season games remaining, and slightly less hope of qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs than they do of winning the Powerball lottery.

The next three-plus weeks will be an interminable slog for this team, especially the members who’ve spent most of their careers competing for — and occasionally winning — a championship. Playing for nothing more than pride and your team’s position in the draft lottery isn’t nearly as compelling.

That, however, is the hard truth facing the Penguins today.

They are bobbing along at NHL .500 — they are 30-30-10, which means they have taken 70 points from 70 games, despite actually having 10 more defeats than victories — and are a full nine points out of the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference playoff field.

Fact is, they’re barely closer to the tail end of the playoff pack in the East than they are to the bottom of the conference; the Penguins have just 12 more points than last-place Columbus, and that margin could shrink considerably if the Blue Jackets beat them a couple of times in a home-and-home series later this week.

So 2023-24 will be, by almost any measure, a lost season for them, and one of the most disappointing — if not flat-out disastrous — in franchise history.

Still, the Penguins might be able to squeeze a few long-term positives out of their final dozen games if they do these three things:

1. Give kids a chance

Although two players who arguably are the Penguins’ best prospects — forward Brayden Yager and defenseman Owen Pickering — still are playing junior hockey, there are a few guys developing in Wilkes-Barre who merit a look at this level, if only to expose them to the quality of competition in the NHL.

Giving them that opportunity might require some salary-cap maneuvering — the Penguins, as usual, barely have enough cap space to purchase a couple of tickets in the lower bowl at PPG Paints Arena — but it would be worth the effort.

One of those prospects, forward Sam Poulin, has three NHL appearances on his resume, and is a good candidate to grab a spot on the major-league roster in the fall. Jack Rathbone, a 24-year-old defenseman acquired from Vancouver in October, skates well and has some offensive ability, but is he too small (5-foot-10, 177 pounds) to be effective here?

There’s only one way to find out.

The most intriguing member of the group is center Vasily Ponomarev, acquired from Carolina in the Jake Guentzel trade. His status is cloudy because he’s listed as “week-to-week” after missing games Saturday and Sunday because of an unspecified lower-body injury, but health permitting, Ponomarev definitely should get a recall.

Teams are limited to four non-emergency recalls after the trade deadline, and the Penguins don’t usually specify whether it’s an emergency move when they promote a player from Wilkes-Barre, so it’s hard to say how many conventional call-ups they have left.

But while the parent club should be wary of doing anything to undercut Wilkes-Barre’s season, since the Baby Penguins are going to get into the Calder Cup playoffs, it could benefit the decision-makers — and the fan base — to see what help, if any, might be coming in the near future.

2. Just lose, baby

The Penguins have the ninth-fewest points — and, more importantly, the ninth-lowest winning percentage — in the league.

Unless they move up at least two slots in the overall standings, they will be able to retain the first-round draft choice they sent to San Jose in the Erik Karlsson trade, replacing it with their No. 1 pick in 2025.

The Penguins have gotten pretty good at losing — hey, they’re 3-9-2 in their past 14 games — and the best thing for the franchise would be for them to continue doing that on a regular basis.

Which is not as easy as it sounds. (Or as they’ve made it seem, at times.)

Players who make it to the NHL are hard-wired to compete. Most of the time, rather fiercely.

Anyone who thinks they would agree to lose games because someone in the organization suggested it might be helpful since it could lead to a better position in the draft order has a terribly warped view of reality. (Never mind that no coach or management figure would deign to propose such a thing, or that no player would be inclined to potentially undermine his job security by helping his team land a more accomplished prospect.)

Still, it might be possible to influence how a stretch drive plays out through personnel moves and tactical decisions.

Eddie Johnston, then GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, illustrated that during the closing weeks of the 1983-84 season, when he did things like trade his best defenseman, Randy Carlyle, for no immediate return, and send goalie Roberto Romano to the farm team in Baltimore after he’d won a couple of starts, saying the Penguins wanted to see what his replacement, Vincent Tremblay, “could do.” Knowing full well that stopping hockey pucks wasn’t terribly high on the list.

All that trouble was worth it, of course, because the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to dive past New Jersey and grab Mario Lemieux in that year’s draft.

Although players of Lemieux’s caliber rarely are available — the last one, coincidentally enough, probably was in the 1984 draft pool — if moving up a spot or two in the draft order doesn’t seem significant, remember 1990, when the Penguins — who surrendered a spot in the playoffs via an overtime loss to Buffalo in the regular-season finale — claimed Jaromir Jagr with the fifth choice in Round 1.

The sixth selection? Scott Scissons, who appeared in two — count ’em, two — career games with the New York Islanders and finished precisely 1,921 points behind Jagr on the NHL’s all-time scoring list.

3. Experiment

Mike Sullivan and his staff don’t have to try anything outlandish — like, say, deploying goalies Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic on the points of the No. 1 power play — but the next few weeks give them a chance to see who might be able to fill a different and/or expanded role next season.

(Then again, given how wretched the Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play has been for most of this season, perhaps the idea of using Jarry and Nedeljkovic on it shouldn’t be summarily dismissed.)

Changes need not be limited to dabbling with adjusting personnel on special teams. Injuries aside, the even-strength personnel combinations appear to be fairly set, but perhaps it’s time to, say, give Drew O’Connor an extended audition at center, regardless of who has to be moved or scratched to do it.

Hey, what have they got to lose? Except more games, that is.

Which, counterintuitive as it might seem, could only be a good thing for these Pittsburgh Penguins.