Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang expressed confidence in the players who currently inhabit the locker room. Coach Mike Sullivan did not specifically do so on Saturday night, but repeatedly has said he believes in this group. It’s the right thing to say, but the overwhelming recent evidence suggests the answer is not inside the room, and a Penguins trade is needed.
The problem is that this group has now set a low-water mark, without a win in two weeks. Saturday, they lost to Seattle (again), 3-2. That is seven straight losses, including an OT defeat, which means the Penguins are 0-6-1 since hanging a six-spot on the Columbus Blue Jackets seemingly a lifetime ago. The only thing consistent has been inconsistency, and even struggling teams in Seattle and Vancouver took wins from the Penguins. Seattle did it twice, and the Penguins account for nearly one-third of Seattle’s seven wins in 13 games.
The Penguins have just four wins in 12 games.
“We all stick together. I mean, it is what it is,” said Letang. “We have to get out of it and know it’s going to happen in our room. We have to stay together and pick each other up. So it’s a tough time, and you just have to go to work in practice, correcting the mistakes, forget about everything and just try to clean it up in the next game.”
Tough times are bordering on hard times.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Penguins are one of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference. They cruised to an easy third-place finish in the Metro Division last season. They thought about breaking up, but in the end, everyone sacrificed to stay together. The big Penguins trade this summer added 40-point defenseman Jeff Petry in place of light-scoring John Marino. They added heavy Jan Rutta on defense in place of the light Chad Ruhwedel.
GM Ron Hextall even scooped up 18-goal Danton Heinen for only a million bucks on the UFA market.
It is supposed to be better than this. Much better. Instead, the Penguins are digging their hole as if there’s oil at the bottom. Only Ottawa and Columbus, on five-game losing streaks, trail the Penguins in the East.
Winning four of their first five games and scoring six goals in each of those wins seems a distant memory. More shockingly, as the Penguins have attempted to turn up the volume on their intensity and play, the music has fallen flat.
If turnovers don’t kill them, the PK does. If they escape bad penalty-killing and puck-management issues, one defensive gaffe ends up in their net.
And through it all, there is a lack of pushback by much of the team, excluding Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust have been the other bright spots up front. Defenseman P.O Joseph has been pleasantly competent and steadily improving. He and defense partner Jan Rutta lead the team in plus/minus.
Marcus Pettersson also has been pretty good.
But the bread isn’t rising. The team isn’t jelling. Worse, the team isn’t winning.
A Penguins trade is in order. The team badly needs help. Expressing confidence is the right thing to say, but there exists no evidence that will happen. The Penguins are what they are, and it’s yet another frustrating moment in a year of Pittsburgh sports frustration.
The Penguins need help, and only GM Ron Hextall can provide it.
In November, 2018, the Penguins had one win in 10 games. Things were bleak, even as the locker room espoused confidence in each other. Former GM Jim Rutherford openly commented that changes were needed and began to make them.
Unfortunately for Rutherford, that first Penguins trade set off a chain reaction of deals that never squared. Several trades followed, which were merely an attempt to fix the last (Rutherford traded Carl Hagelin for Tanner Pearson. Then, later that season, traded Pearson for Erik Gudbranson, and early the next season traded Gubdranson, and so on).
There is danger in making trades and making changes.
There is also danger in leaving a team to its own devices when nothing seems to be working.
The Penguins’ penalty-kill didn’t allow a power-play goal Saturday. Instead, just after time expired, they allowed a 5v5 goal as Brandon Tanev got position on Jake Guentzel and Yanni Gourde beat Brock McGinn to the net, and Brian Dumoulin didn’t provide support. It was essentially a power-play goal because Sidney Crosby was well behind the play after exiting the penalty box. Even if the stat sheet says differently, it was another indictment of the PK.
An otherwise good game was soured when two players relied upon for their defense were not good defensively.
The Penguins’ third line generated a mere two scoring chances on Saturday. In fairness, Jeff Carter was out due to injury, but Carter’s play has also been the subject of discussion and Kasperi Kapanen has turned a strong start into another AWOL stretch. The third line needs help.
Sullivan had so little faith in his fourth line that it played about five minutes. In fairness, Teddy Blueger is out due to injury, but far more is wrong than Blueger’s return can fix.
Hextall does not have a lot of “tradeable” players. Take the top four forwards off the table, from Sidney Crosby to Bryan Rust. Take the top defenseman, Kris Letang, off the table.
Everyone else should be fair game.
Something has to give. The Penguins need help.
And only Hextall can provide it.