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Kingerski: Penguins Big Mistake with Core; Who Still Believes?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby

OTTAWA, Ontario — Watching the ignominious end of the Pittsburgh Penguins dynastic run isn’t easy, though I’m sure it’s even more difficult to be living it. Against an opponent who had lost seven straight, the Penguins coasted through the motions Tuesday, shooting the puck and putting themselves in the right position against the Ottawa Senators, but did so with the conviction of a third-grade school play.

There are still those playing hard. The team en masse hasn’t given up but there are significant gaps between the players giving everything they have and those who remain lifelessly downtrodden.

Actions speak far louder than words. Actually, those actions are screaming messages that are to be ignored at management’s peril.

Newcomer Michael Bunting didn’t receive the memo about the team’s unhappiness and has been scraping away. He scored his first Penguins goal and did so from the crease, an area in which he spent more time than any teammate.

However, after watching this eight-game run, including six regulation losses, the biggest takeaway is that no competent management team could possibly keep together this iteration of the Penguins for a day longer than they must.

For starters, the core looks absolutely worn out.

Many readers have cited last weekend’s TNT broadcast, specifically former Penguins coach and broadcaster Eddie Olzyck’s mystified criticism of Evgeni Malkin declining to shoot. He has two goals since Jan. 27 and 10 points in those 18 games. Unfortunately for the Penguins, the stat sheet paints a rosier picture of Malkn’s game than does watching it.

He was invisible again on Tuesday.

Sidney Crosby has also submitted his worst games of the season over the past week, though he was strong against Ottawa, with Bunting and Bryan Rust adding support.

Kris Letang’s final shift in overtime was interesting as he fell and was knocked down, creating ample space and opportunity for Ottawa. After a transformative season, his play has suffered lately.

It’s no coincidence, and it’s entirely predictable. Who thought three players north of 35 years old could play all 82 games and about 20 minutes per game, including the hard minutes of high-leverage situations, and not be greatly affected by the grind of the March schedule?

The Penguins core has been wildly overused this season, but coach Mike Sullivan has done so out of necessity. The only line providing offense is Sidney Crosby’s trio. The only pairing capable of shutdown defense has been Kris Letang’s. If there is one lesson to be learned from this late-season collapse, besides a warning against jarring changes that shred the team’s heart, it’s that the core three still have ample talent but should not be playing top minutes all season.

Far more support is needed.

The jump in Drew O’Connor’s and Valtteri Puustinen’s legs is evident. They flash like bolts of lightning compared to the engulfing exhaustion and lethargy surrounding them.

Someone close to the team told me before the Western Canada trip that the players were “in the grind.” I had no idea just how prescient that offhanded comment was.

Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas cited the need to get younger when he addressed Jake Guentzel’s future with the club.

Based on the Penguins transaction log, they’ve used only one of their four regular recalls since the March 8 NHL trade deadline.

If he’s as close to NHL-ready as Dubas said, I see no reason that Vasily Ponomarev isn’t in a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater instead of a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton jersey this week.

If nothing else, give the oldest team in sports something to rally around. Something. Anything. This freefall is tough to watch.

Another point to consider, the Penguins owe the San Jose Sharks a first-round pick this year or next. The distinct possibility of being even worse next year should scare Dubas. If the Penguins can win a few games and avoid a top-10 pick, Dubas can give it away and begin building with the 2025 pick rather than gambling on 2025’s result.

Letang Believes; Who Else?

The moment that struck me Tuesday night following the game was Letang. He gave the firmest defense of anyone in two weeks that the Penguins still have a chance.

“It’s tight. I mean, the Islanders were out of it, and suddenly they’re in it,” said Letang. “If you get streaky right now, you give yourself a chance to get there. But, we talk every day; we have to look at the amount of time.”

Yes, that’s been the best answer in two weeks.