On January 16, 2016, the talented but struggling Pittsburgh Penguins experienced a paradigm shift that changed the NHL. This was the day that general manager Jim Rutherford acquired Carl Hagelin from the Anaheim Ducks.
Hagelin was not expected to be the cornerstone of the franchise, but better than any other player he exemplified the fast and aggressive play style that would win the Penguins two Stanley Cups. Pittsburgh was out of the playoff picture at the time of the trade, but this deal changed the identity of coach Mike Sullivan’s squad, and completely altered their path.
Early Plans Derailed
Thus far in the 2018-19 season, the Penguins have been an enigma. The talent and experience on their roster should be the envy of the league. But this has not translated into the success that they expect from themselves. On November 14, 2018, Rutherford once again executed a trade that sent shockwaves through his team. This time it meant Hagelin was being shipped out of town after plenty of not-so-subtle hints by “GMJR” wondering if the squad had been together too long.
Rutherford was rewarded with a 4-3 penalty-filled loss against Tampa Bay. Acquiring Tanner Pearson may ultimately be a good deal for the Penguins, but is not nearly as impactful as the initial acquisition of Hagelin.
So what exactly is going to invoke the dominance that the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins used to strike fear into their opponents in recent years? The cause for the struggles is very apparent: a weak bottom six, the defensive ineptitude without Justin Schultz, and Matt Murray’s troubles are the most obvious. But the solution is not so easily identified.
Part of it may be a simple solution, yet the most difficult to make happen: the players simply need to play their game. Yes, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, and Kris Letang are playing at a high level. But beyond that, it does not appear that the players trust themselves, the system, or each other.
Jake Guentzel still has not shown the same level of production as his last two playoff performances. Bryan Rust is following Conor Sheary’s path of excellence to irrelevance, while Riley Sheahan is being badly misused. Beyond Letang, and for the most part Brian Dumoulin, the defense looks collectively outmatched.
From shifting line combinations, rotations in the press box, and locker-room scoldings, Sullivan has tried it all to no avail. Much, if not most of the Penguins’ struggles are a result of the player’s execution, not a lack of talent.
Finding Their Identity
The Hagelin trade also feels like an acquiescence of sorts. Pittsburgh can no longer thrive on speed alone. In the years following a dominant team winning the Stanley Cup, or two, teams try to replicate their success. The NHL did exactly that, rendering the Penguins unexceptional at their own trademark system. Matching up every night with teams that could play speed-for-speed with Sullivan’s squad nullified the advantage of having Hagelin and Rust, thus exposing their weaknesses.
From a strategic standpoint, the Penguins are going to have to adjust to a similar style as the Washington Capitals: speed, skill, and physicality. During the offseason, Rutherford worked towards this goal, but it is clear that more moves may be necessary.Looking at the roster, the names Derick Brassard, and Olli Maatta jump off the page as potentially necessary moves. It could seem odd having this conversation as the things currently discussed as the Penguins’ deficiencies were considered their strengths prior to the season.
Ultimately it is a two-step process that sounds easy in theory but is much more difficult in practice. The players need to play as they are capable of, and Rutherford has to make the correct moves to supplement their success. Sounds simple, right?
A seismic on-ice epiphany or another identity-shifting trade could render this discussion irrelevant and lead to a parade in June. But until then the Penguins and their fans need to take it one game at a time, or even one shift at a time, and hope that they find their identity along the way.