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The Party is Over; Penguins Need Big Changes or Risk More Losing

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PITTSBURGH  — Just like that. As with most, the end was unexpected, sudden and came far too soon. The Pittsburgh Penguins expected their core group of players to be Stanley Cup contenders for at least a couple or a few more years. Instead, they were discarded like a stack of old newspapers Tuesday night by the New York Islanders in a Round One sweep.

It’s been a hell of a party.

But it’s over.

“We felt good about our game coming into the playoffs. We were playing some good hockey,” Sidney Crosby said. 

With a string of wins and strong performances, the Penguins quest to find an identity looked like it was on the fast track in the second half of the season even as the team simultaneously played musical chairs with core players on the injury list, including Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

However, the Penguins progress was quickly undone by a fully healthy roster. It’s not supposed to be that way, but it most certainly was. The full Penguins roster instead abandoned the simple play which made the team successful. In the end, New York buckled their will to fight for that dirty space in the low zone which is crucial to being the hard team they want to be.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the Penguins were missing Letang and Malkin for most games in the final month of the season. That statement isn’t an advocation of dealing one or both, but it is a testament to the Penguins ability to win without players not named Sidney Crosby.

And its confirmation the Penguins core is now less than the sum of its parts.

The aging Penguins core consists of remaining stars and leaders Crosby, Malkin, Letang, with new co-stars Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist. Jake Guentzel and Matt Murray have also joined the cast.

The Penguins should not be a better team without some of their star players but that’s just what happened this season as the total of the star players pushed them off their best game which was successful throughout March and pulled them back to their traditional, high-risk, high reward game–which doesn’t work anymore.

Back in January, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan warned his team before the All-Star break to return and “buy-in.”

That buy-in from some was always dubious.

The 2016 Penguins rebirth with the new core players who joined the 2009 Stanley Cup holdovers Crosby-Malkin-Letang carried Sidney Crosby into the conversation of top-five all-time greats. It soothed years of self-inflicted failure from 2010-2015. It gave rise to thousands of new Penguins fans, massive parades, and hilarious Justin Schultz memes.

RedBeard's Pittsburgh

But the party is over.

Simply listen to Evgeni Malkin, who was blunt and piercing following the Penguins loss and getting swept by the New York Islanders. Malkin said:

  • “The young teams are hungry.”
  • “No one respects our team, everyone wants to beat the Penguins.”
  • And, the Penguins must understand…”We’re not champions anymore.”

Ouch.

Penguins leader and “Dad,” Matt Cullen who likely played his last NHL game was little more sugar coated in his assessment.

“I still believe the future is bright for the organization. There are some pretty special players here. This particular group, we just weren’t able to get it done,” Cullen said.

No, the Penguins were not able to get it done. The Penguins core has become a square peg in a round hole as the game accelerates and eschews creative offensive play in favor of rigid system adherence. Mistakes are now magnified instead of reciprocated, and the Penguins core makes far too many mistakes.

Out of frustration, Malkin said to the media including Pittsburgh Hockey Now, “Maybe they have a little better system … Maybe better players.”

Circle Kessel as the low hanging fruit. Kessel finished 35th in the league with 43 even strength points (15g, 28a) but coughed up the puck a whopping 78 times (all situations) and was a chief culprit in the Penguins league-worst 15 shorthanded goals against. He is the antithesis of the Penguins push for simplicity and being hard to play against.

Kessel told reporters, “We’ll see” if he’ll be back next year.

Prepare for what comes next. He and his $6.8 million cap hit are unlikely to survive the coming retool no matter how deep the devotion of some fans.

But a team which is swept in Round One needs far more than one change. The changes began last summer. Of the 19 players in a Penguins sweater for Game 4, eight were either not with the Penguins last season or at the start this season (We’ve included Garrett Wilson and Teddy Blueger in that total but they were in the Penguins organization at the AHL level).

However, including Crosby, the Penguins core consists of five players who will be 31-years-old and older next season and account for $37.55 million of the expected $83 million salary cap. Yes, that is nearly half for a core which was unceremoniously bounced.

The Penguins dynastic predecessors in Los Angeles and Chicago were in a different boat and rowing in a different direction. Both LA and Chicago were saddled with disastrous contracts with too many years awarded to unmovable players.

The Penguins are not saddled with many if any unmovable contracts or players. Instead, the Penguins must figure out who they are and who they want to be. And most importantly, who wants to be a part of that new identity. 

As the Penguins move forward, “buy-in” should be the determining factor when evaluating players. Those who they feel bought into the system and concept can stay. Those who didn’t?

It’s been a hell of a party, but it’s over.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Edgar

    April 17, 2019 at 9:38 am

    The Penguins traded for Justin Schultz who is a kind of reclamation project that was somewhat successful. He’s still very much a liability at times on the defensive end. But, the quasi-success of that move has Rutherford thinking every single player can be one. From Riley Sheahan to Jamie Oleksiak to Eric Gubrandson. These players are not Stanley Cup winning players and we are just saddled with too many of them. It’s gonna be a long way to Tipperary.

  2. Big B

    April 17, 2019 at 11:35 am

    This team still had 100 points and sure they lost in the first round but so did Tampa so did Detroit when they were first overall the worst thing this team can do is overreact.A tweak or two is all this teams neeeds starting with divesting themselves off Kessel.The Philbillies can say whatever they want but he has no buy in and his lack of a work ethic is starting to get to the team.GMJR has made some great moves for this team with getting Kessel, Horny, Justin, Jared etc and yet everyone wants to blame the GM.The team needs to remove anyone who is not part of the solution and Edgar it may be a long way to Tipperary but when you get there you will see she is the sweetest girl i know.
    p.s Anyone care Geno said the team was poorly coached

  3. mikeD

    April 17, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    “…and was a chief culprit in the Penguins league-worst 15 shorthanded goals against” when did Kessel kill penalties?

    78 in 82 isn’t good but it’s sure better than 76 in 65.that would be Mr Letang’s whopping turnover numbers on the season.

    or how about Letang’s 11 turnovers in the playoffs. Yes 11 in 4. compare that to Phil’s 3.

    you realize in the last 3 years the Pens have won 1 playoff series with Letang in the lineup and that took 6 games to finally get past a completely over matched Flyers team.

    the best hockey they played all year was in March, when Letang was out.

    do you see the trend?

    • Dan Kingerski

      April 17, 2019 at 5:04 pm

      Shorthanded goals against means the Penguins power play was on the ice.

  4. Jason Wyant

    April 17, 2019 at 6:01 pm

    I think that Bjugstad needs to grow into one of the core players. Horny goes nowhere! Sid and Geno are untouchables. Not sold on murray as a franchise goalie. Though I know he has a favorable contract. McCann is a longterm contract in the future. Maatta goes, Phil goes, Letang might get a look to go as well. I think GMJR will find another versatile, non superstar scorer for Geno’s line. I agree with @Thedankingerski that kessel is addition by subtraction. Love Phil, but his shelf life, as a pen, is expired. I wish em all the best. Sincerely. For me, I think that Tanger is due for a change of scenery as well. I thought that in 17 too, but he had a great season this year. Until game one of the playoffs, and it was leturnover after that. Simon, where do I start lol. Contract is very favorable. Seriously needs to work on a lot of things. Finishing being at the top of that list.

    I got a lot more. So if ya wanna talk some hockey scenarios hit me back.

  5. Ricardo58

    April 17, 2019 at 7:09 pm

    Since the Isles just swept our Pens, how would 71 81 or 58 play on their team as compared to their tendencies playing for the Pens? Their style of play would be a fail in the Isles system. Other Pens I would imagine too.
    My point is pro sports are a copy cat league and the Isles style is similar to the Devils play of years ago. I’d imagine the Pens will have to adjust like the rest of the league did when speed and breakouts from the D zone were the Pens calling cards during past 2 cup wins. CBJ played a similar style vs TB.
    Go Pens!

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