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Molinari: It’s Time for Penguins’ Leaders to, Well, Lead

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, NHL news

A week ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins still had not lost a game in regulation, and looked fully capable of competing for the Stanley Cup that has eluded them since they won it in 2017.

Or at least of winning a playoff series, a feat they haven’t managed since a year after that.

Of course, there was a lot of hockey remaining — the Penguins surely were aware that the course of a team’s season isn’t necessarily set in the first five games, even if the club goes 4-0-1 then — but management’s decision during the offseason to keep its veteran core intact seemed prescient.

The Penguins weren’t playing flawless hockey, but stellar goaltending and a quick-strike offense were able to negate whatever blemishes developed, and those letdowns and lapses had cost them only a single point through the initial 10 days of 2022-23.

Four humbling and disheartening losses later, however, the Penguins look more like a team likely to contend for a prominent spot in the draft lottery than the franchise’s sixth championship, although it must be remembered that an early-season skid is no more telling or predictive than an early-season surge.

Still, they suddenly have an eye-dropper offense that generated just one goal in each of the past three games. Their penalty-killing has slipped to 28th in the league rankings and their power play isn’t producing to its potential.

The Penguins have plunged to seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, and while the reality is that they are just two points out of first, their place in the standings is troubling and tangible evidence of the trajectory their season currently is on.

Playing without top-six left wingers Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker hurt, although both returned for the Penguins’ 3-1 loss to the Kraken Saturday, but their absences do not explain, let alone excuse, the team’s miserable showings in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle.

No, that was a full-team performance, although the role played by some of those core veterans should not be overlooked.

The No. 1 defense pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin performed so poorly that Mike Sullivan separated them at one point. And while plus-minus ratings should not be unduly emphasized, the ones Letang (minus-7) and Dumoulin (minus-6) compiled in the past four games are revealing.

Sidney Crosby is one assist away from becoming the 20th player in league history to record 900 in his career, but doesn’t have one in the past four games, and hasn’t scored a goal since the Oilers game.

Evgeni Malkin had one goal and one assist in the four losses, output that projects to 42 points over an 82-game season. That wouldn’t be much of a return on the Penguins’ recent four-year investment in him.

Sullivan frequently praises the Pittsburgh Penguins’ veteran leadership group, crediting it for helping to lift the team past whatever adversity it might encounter. Those platitudes probably are warranted, although only people inside the locker room truly know what words are said and examples are set during challenging times.

The Penguins are definitely going through one of those, though, and it’s incumbent on the Crosbys and Malkins and Letangs and Dumoulins to show the way out of it.

They can’t do it alone, obviously. That will take nothing less than a 20-man commitment.

But part of the rationale for re-signing free-agents-to-be like Letang and Malkin was the belief that their effort and intangibles could provide a template for their teammates to help them escape difficult situations.

Well, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in one now, and it’s time for the veteran core to validate management’s faith in it.

Which is not to suggest that doing so will be easy.

The Penguins have a travel day Sunday — it presumably will be a rather subdued flight back from the Pacific Northwest — followed by one practice before getting into their third set of back-to-back games in little more than a week.

And that quirk of scheduling isn’t their biggest concern.

On their first game back at home, during which teams returning from long trips often struggle, they have to face Boston Tuesday. The Bruins are 8-1, have won five games in a row and are playing so well that first-year coach Jim Montgomery gave his players this entire weekend off.

Oh, and first-line winger Brad Marchand, who torments the Penguins (and most other opponents), is back in uniform, despite being projected to miss the first two months of the season after undergoing hip surgery. He scored twice in his 2022-23 debut Thursday, so the Penguins should prepare for him to be as effective as he is irritating.

The next night, the Penguins will be in Buffalo, where the Sabres are 5-3 and finally, mercifully, beginning to see the results of a rebuild that nearly dates to the days when their home rink was known as Marine Midland Arena. Which is to say, a long, long time ago.

Whether that will yield a playoff berth for the Sabres next spring remains to be seen.

Conversely, qualifying for the postseason is the lowest setting on the bar of objectives for the Penguins — hey, they’ve done it for 16 years in a row — but getting in is not their birthright.

It has to be earned, and that isn’t easy. While the Pittsburgh Penguins absolutely have the personnel to do that, and probably a lot more, they won’t get there if they can’t get their game back to where it should be.

And the onus is on their veteran core — the one the franchise’s decision-makers determined merited another chance to chase a Cup — to show the way there.

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Vince Gori
Vince Gori
28 days ago

The effort from the captain was there last night, as for the others last night….. Letang will be Letang, you take the good with the bad. Malkin, despite being healthy has been invisible. Petry has been all over the place, good but a lot of bad. Speaking of bad you got Dumoulin. Now Carter is apparently hurt. We can’t get a break. McGinn has also been invisible, as has Rust. We have a lot of cap money tied up in underperforming players. I long for the Boyles and Aston-Reese’s with their bargain basement effectiveness at a lower price. Something has… Read more »

Knobman
Knobman
28 days ago
Reply to  Dave Molinari

Letang and Malkin quit being a template for teammates to follow years ago. Self-implosion on the ice when the going gets tough should not be followed.

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  Vince Gori

Yeah but a lot of bad with Letang leading the team with a minus 5 rating.

Zach
Zach
28 days ago

After watching these past 4 games one of the biggest things that has stood out to me was the physical aspect each team brought to the game when playing the penguins. I feel as though the penguins just got out bullied by some of these teams. When you look at the stat sheets though it won’t show that. The hits were pretty much dead even in all 4 games, but when you look at the film you will see the writing on the wall. When the penguins would be in the offensive zone they were just simply getting bullied a… Read more »

Knobman
Knobman
28 days ago
Reply to  Zach

This is nothing new. Teams have been getting to Letang and Malkin for years by playing this way. Goading them into penalties so they get off their game and pout for the rest of the game. Mass turnovers and bad passes ensue.

Jackmccrory
Jackmccrory
28 days ago

Time for 58 and 71 to show that they’re worthy of Their contract extensions Because we’re gonna have to watch this nonsense for a few more years at least

Pepper
Pepper
28 days ago
Reply to  Dave Molinari

I would generally agree, but it’s a continuation of what we’ve seen for 5 years now. So it’s much more than a 4 game sample. Stretches of easy offensive wins followed by stretches of lazy slop. We haven’t seen consistent, disciplined play from this team since 2017. They bought into Sullivan’s system for two years but have now tuned him out. When they were young they could make up for the slop with athleticism. They are now older and slower but still play like they can make up for anything with athleticism. They cannot. Even worse, new guys to the… Read more »

Knobman
Knobman
28 days ago
Reply to  Pepper

Exactly. Lack of effort, bad turnovers, and bad passes have been the norm from Letang and Malkin for years. They probably will still get their points this year, but will get worse as these new contracts age. Hextall missed his opportunity to bring in new players at key positions that give an all game, every game effort.

Phil
Phil
28 days ago
Reply to  Knobman

Like who all game every game effort lol!!! That’s just ridiculous! Are you going to blame and vilify malkin and letang for everything. What big shake up did you really want to see? Replace malkin and letang with who? I’m seriously tired of seeing this fan base hate on JUST TWO PLAYERS REALLY!! EVERYTHING IS MALKIN AND LETANG FAULT CAUSE WE HAVENT WON A PLAYOFF SERIES!!! How about supporting your team instead of constantly hating them Yes the last 3 games have been bad. 3 GAMES!! Its was the right move to bring back malkin and letang without them this… Read more »

Zach
Zach
27 days ago
Reply to  Phil

Amen, you are my hero for this post.

knobman
knobman
27 days ago
Reply to  Phil

Calm down. You can’t argue with my second and fourth sentences. This has gone on for years and trickles down to other players past and current, thus strings of ugly losses every year. We should not be seeing a lack of effort this early in a season. There may not have been UFAs available that are as flashy as Malkin and Letang, but there were plenty of players available that play a consistent, responsible game, which lead to consistent wins. Geno and Kris are not the only ones to blame, but they are the veterans and high-priced players that should… Read more »

Phil
Phil
27 days ago
Reply to  knobman

First, I would tell you to calm down! 2 weeks in the season lol. Second its delusion and the trickle down affect for YEARS lol. This team won the division 2 seasons ago and had 103 pts last season lol. So that’s not true. And Its malkin and letang fault others play poorly that’s just flat out ridiculous. If you have ever played sports or athletics at any level you would know you CANNOT BLAME 2 PLAYERS FOR THE PERFORMANCE OF OTHER PLAYERs! Really? That’s a lie and your using irrational vilification of 58 and 71 to support your false… Read more »

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  Pepper

Right! Malkin needed to go for one and It was time to break up the dynamic Trio but Crosby runs the show you know!

Mark
Mark
28 days ago

Should has gotten rid of kap zucker and dumo . A non scoring high priced kap, a glass jaw zucker and a dumo,a guy has given a lot and played injured a lot. Poj is another one also, been hearing how great he is and will be for 2 yrs. A average small defenseman, what this team does not need.

Biggus Dickus
Biggus Dickus
28 days ago
Reply to  Mark

POJ is really the main issue here, he has to go

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  Biggus Dickus

That’s why he has a +3 rating and Letang has a -5 rating. You make a lot of sense!🙄

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  Mark

Especially Kap with that contract handed to him.When he scored his first and only goal it sounded like his slump was over the way the announcers were talking. Funny

Edgar
Edgar
28 days ago

Funny thing is it’s always been the defense. With Crosby and Malkin as anchors, Ive always been shocked the team hasn’t moved mountains to improve the quality of the defending on the team. They got lucky when Hagelin dropped into their lap, but, in reality, they’ve learned nothing. Yes, we won cups. Having the 5th best player all time will do that for you. (With another all time great).

Frank
Frank
28 days ago

Hmmm! You know there is a problem when your best work was done by the video review guy sitting in a booth who had a +2 on the night while the guys sitting on the bench must have had another night of “over confidence.” Is there a franchise in NHL history better at finding excuses for underperforming?

Wasnt
28 days ago

It seems like the Pens just got used to easy goals or they’d just make comebacks a routine, no big deal. Who knows, maybe it was hard to get up for some of those teams also but the Bruins are next. This is going to show what their made of, Marchand is coming for Jarry. Can’t wait

Travis
Travis
28 days ago

Older team , management made a ton of mistakes , keeping the core together was not realistic. Trade off some pieces for youth and picks, keep Crosby and real in some talent at this year’s rich draft. Wake up people there no way this team can win a cup, probably not even make the playoffs. Truth hurts but if you want examples look at La they traded there older players, had a quick turn around and now they are on the rise.This is a business, yes loyalty matters but this is the cost. Pittsburgh looked tired and we’re not even… Read more »

Zach
Zach
27 days ago
Reply to  Travis

Lol you make it sound like it’s so easy. Why don’t you be the GM if it’s so easy.

Travis
Travis
27 days ago
Reply to  Zach

Lol
Signed rust till he is 37
Signed rakel to he’s 36
Resign kappy
Sign Carter till he’s 39
Sign malken till he’s 40
Sign rutta to he’s 36
Same Letang to 40
Realistically you actually think we’ll be competitive? It’s not easy, but they did everything Burke said they shouldn’t do when he was with Sportsnet. Makes no sense.

Zach
Zach
27 days ago
Reply to  Travis

So tell me who you were bringing in? You have no answers. I didn’t care bringing these guys back, because they had no one to replace them with. Realistically, this team will go through a massive rebuild in the next 3-4 years. Rust was a good signing, easily was going to get more from another team. Malkin and Letang each took discounts, again there were no options to replace either, Trocheck and Kadri maybe, but the team had no cap space to sign either. Rutta was a good signing. It’s only October, a long way to go. I love Pittsburgh,… Read more »

Biggus Dickus
Biggus Dickus
28 days ago

Have to trade POJ or just waive him, glaring weakness

DaGama
DaGama
27 days ago
Reply to  Biggus Dickus

Right, POJ is their big problem. /s

Zach
Zach
27 days ago

Ah all the pessimistic doom and gloom, all the arm chair GM’s have all the answers

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
27 days ago

Its a losing streak early in the season which followed a winning streak. Been here before.

Rob
Rob
27 days ago

People were crying to get rid of Pettersson plus 3 and he’s been one of the better defensemen with Ruuta at a plus 4 rating. The only signing I see good so far on offense was Rakell at a plus 5. Malkins minus 1 Rust even and Ketang minus 5.