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Penguins Blog: Admitting Real Problems, Making Hard Choices

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin Rickard Rakell Erik Karlsson

The Pittsburgh Penguins organization faces a bevy of decisions over the next 12 months that will shape or re-shape the on-ice product. The decisions at the ice level could be transformative, too.

It will take more courage than methodical caution to fix the Penguins this summer because, quite simply, they already know what’s wrong. Or at least they should.

But admitting every problem won’t be easy. Some popular players are the culprits. Despite being recently acquired with the best of intentions, some players add to the problems rather than solve them.

A stagnant power play was merely a symptom, not the cause. A lack of scoring wingers and a declining shot at the point (Evgeni Malkin) highlighted the problems that were also part of the even-strength problems.

Not until Michael Bunting’s arrival did the Penguins’ second line show appropriate production. The power play was a little less putrid, though still dangerously inconsistent and prone to giving up shorthanded goals.

There was also no offense from the third line, except for Lars Eller. They were unable to score with the open ice and speed of 3v3 overtime. The defense was painfully clumsy in the biggest moments, and the team was mentally weak, inviting wild inconsistency.

Such teams cough up third-period leads, get scored on soon after scoring time and again, give up shorthanded goals whilst fighting a stagnant power play, and collapse under adversity.

Otherwise, things were perfect.

Yes, the Penguins were guilty of all of those. Dubas admitted he was surprised and disappointed by how the Penguins sulked before and after the NHL trade deadline. For all of the leaders in the Penguins room, the team flirted with folding their season in the first part of March.

Sidney Crosby dragged the team forward at first despite themselves.

Now comes the absolute necessity of unflinchingly choosing to confront some of the uncomfortable factors rather than sidestep inexplicable shortcomings.

Despite having about $10 million to spend on July 1, they’re not in a power position. So if they hope to improve more than the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Washington Capitals, and New York Islanders (the teams just behind them and just ahead of them at the end of the season), Dubas will need to take a few risks.

The easy decisions are contracts for Sidney Crosby and Marcus Pettersson, who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on July 1, 2025, but can sign new contracts beginning this July.

No, the significant decisions involve talented players surrounding Sidney Crosby in the lineup. The choices that will shape the Penguins are the yet unknown options to address problems, upgrade weak spots, and reverse negative trends.

Fixing Mistakes

Creating a blue line better at defending. Adding middle-six scoring would help both 5v5 offense and overtime games. Lessening the burden on Malkin. Those would be merely a start toward remaking the team.

And in the process, fixing mistakes.

Last summer, Dubas wisely acquired Reilly Smith as a replacement for the soon-departed Jason Zucker and signed Ryan Graves as a July 1 free agent.

There weren’t many criticisms at the time. They were perfectly logical, straightforward moves.

Yet one year later, neither are regarded as victories. Quite the opposite.

Dubas admitted he didn’t like the offerings for veterans with term at the NHL trade deadline. Dubas also didn’t like the returns for a mid-season hockey trade that could have changed the dynamics of the team stuck in a sideways trajectory. Perhaps that’s why Smith and others are still with the team despite noisy trade rumors.

This summer, Dubas must set aside the caution that metered his in-season moves. Undoing the mistakes of the last 12 months will be paramount.

It’s time for the Penguins to trust their instincts and have the courage to make the difficult calls that might defy conventional logic for a team trying to win right now. If the Penguins had thrown caution to the wind and “lost” a hockey trade earlier in the season, such as acquiring Michael Bunting for Jake Guentzel, perhaps they could have awakened from their self-induced lethargy a few games sooner, and the season would be current rather than past tense.

Dubas is unlikely to go full-on Jim Rutherford and keep making trades chasing the roster the last trade was supposed to fix; never afraid to undo a mistake. During Rutherford’s tenure, a string of players, including Tanner Pearson, seemed to go as quickly as they arrived.

One string of Rutherford’s moves began with trading veteran Carl Hagelin for Pearson, then later in the season Pearson for Erik Gudbranson, then early the next season moving Gudbranson to clear roster space for John Marino. There were a few trade dominoes that quickly fell from one to the next.

Dubas might be wise to borrow from that strategy and attempt to fix what hasn’t worked despite existing monetary or trade investments.

There are plenty of players on the Penguins’ roster who might fit better elsewhere. Smith, Graves, and Rickard Rakell aren’t alone on the list, though Rakell’s past success with the Penguins makes him a longer discussion.

Logic might say stick with it; on paper, it should work. Conventional wisdom might posit the trade market is too soft.

There will be a lot of yellow lights on the road ahead, but the only exit ramp can be real change.

There’s no reason to think the current Penguins are much better than the 88 points they ended the season with. It took absolute desperation to turn their season around, but if we look closer, they still lost four of the 12 games, which were essentially must-win (8-1-3).

Dubas probably won’t have the option for good choices. The Penguins don’t have the coveted draft picks that rebuilding teams want, and they don’t have a lot of dispensable talent, either.

The changes will not be easy, and you might not like some of them. But they’re absolutely necessary.

Caution and tepid change will only produce tepid results.