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Penguins Offseason Analysis

Penguins, Sullivan Struggles Won’t be Repeated Next Season



Pittsburgh Penguins Evgeni Malkin celebrates with Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby

A few months removed from the Pittsburgh Penguins crash to end the 2018-19 season, the reasons have been as hotly discussed as previous successes were celebrated. While many chase singular reasons which had little to do with failure, the Penguins biggest reasons for their flop are impossible to repeat, or next to impossible. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan are making sure of it.

The reasons for the poor season are not what most of you think.

Ah, yes. Jack Johnson. If only the Penguins had replaced him with Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, Zach Trotman or the beer vendor. Fortunately, Johnson was not the “boat anchor” or “drag” which he’s been called. If you follow PHN, you’ve seen the building blocks of the case.

Whether Johnson returns for his second Penguins season or is a salary cap casualty, to blame Johnson for the Penguins struggles is a bit like blaming the storm troopers if you don’t like Star Wars.

Head coach Mike Sullivan takes quite the pile of the blame for selective player usage. Dominik Simon also takes the heat for daring to skate beside Sidney Crosby and not finishing enough of the increased volume of scoring chances.

We’ve been over Sullivan’s usage, too. Every head coach has fallback options. Sullivan was forced to use his more often than he would have liked but that stemmed from struggling shooters and waning efforts not from a teen crush on Simon.

“We just felt that, as a group, we didn’t come together the way we should have or could have in order to maximize the potential of our group,” Sullivan told the league website.

Let’s parse the codewords the Penguins management and coach have been using since mid-April because therein lies the real problem and the likely reason it won’t be repeated. The reasons for the Penguins really aren’t what most people think. It wasn’t the defense. Not Jack Johnson. Not Dominik Simon. Or even Sullivan’s usage of Simon, lack of usage of Daniel Sprong, Kris Letang, Matt Murray, or age of the Penguins.

When the Penguins needed their best players, those players did not come through. And not only did they not deliver, but there were also internal problems. That’s the reason the Penguins sputtered, coughed and so easily flatlined.

“I think part of what excites us moving forward is the enthusiasm that some of the new players acquired have expressed to us, how excited they are with the opportunity in front of them to become part of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and become part of a group that potentially has a chance to win Stanley Cups,” Sullivan said.

On July 1, Rutherford said, “their excitement was coming through the phone.”

Those new players, Brandon Tanev, Alex Galchenyuk, and Dominik Kahun may or may not improve the Penguins overall production. The team will certainly be different and the changes may not be done. And that’s the point.

The codewords or descriptive phrases have been pointing large neon flashing arrows towards the immutable fact the Penguins biggest reason for failure was their best players and the lack of teamwork, or team concept. Or perhaps dissension.

When the serious hockey began, Sidney Crosby and Jack Guentzel were present and accounted. Guentzel’s 40 goals and Crosby’s 100 points were not stat sheet mirages. The goals and points were earned. But the other top duo–Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, not so much.

Now Kessel is gone and Malkin is preparing for a better 2019-20 season. Sullivan said Friday he has met with Malkin.

“I think the specifics of the conversation we’ll keep between [Evgeni] and I, but certainly, we’re very much on the same page as far as how we’re going to go moving forward. He’s an elite player,” Sullivan said. “He’ll continue to be an elite player in this league. He’s been one of the best players of his generation, and he’ll continue to be that for us.”

No team will win the Stanley Cup every year and the Penguins opportunities are dwindling. But recognize the latest one was not squandered by secondary or tertiary players stepping forward to fill bigger roles because of need, but because primary players stepped backward to create the need.

And that is why the Pittsburgh Penguins plight existed and why it likely won’t exist again. The reasons for the flop aren’t what you thought. And the Penguins voices have been hinting at it for a few months. Sullivan’s conference call Friday was just the latest example.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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