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Kingerski: Ready or Not, Hextall Needs to Shake Up Penguins

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Power play

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a great team. The Pittsburgh Penguins are a terrible team. Evgeni Malkin is an all-world player. Some nights he is not. The Penguins have entered a maddeningly frustrating world of inconsistency and shortfalls of their own doing, and it appears the only way out is with change.

Things are not trending the right way, either. Two of the last three games have been two of their worst efforts of the season. And sandwiched in the middle was their best. Tada! The Penguins are in fifth place and not gaining traction.

NO, we are not suggesting the Penguins trade Malkin or Kris Letang. No, no, no, and no. And no matter how many negative comments pile on social media, Malkin and maybe Letang will stay as long as they want. Stop wasting your breath otherwise.

Also, be careful of confirmation bias. Malkin is in the crosshairs, and every mistake or misgiving is amplified 10x, but the Penguins’ problems are not his alone.

The Penguins inconsistency was cited by Hextall nearly two weeks ago when he announced new AGM Chris Pryor. Head coach Mike Sullivan has repeated it so often a cardboard cutout with a voice track could do his postgames.

“We just didn’t play the game hard enough or smart enough,” Sullivan said Thursday night after the Penguins faceplanted in a 4-3 loss to Philadelphia.

The Penguins have now turned in far too many performances unworthy of a playoff team. Far too much “not hard enough” or “not smart enough.”

The team can tout their third period comeback record this season. They have nine wins when tied or trailing after two periods. But that also means they were behind. Given their three wins while behind after two periods and their nine losses this season, that means in 22 games, they’ve trailed 11 times after 40 minutes.

They’ve trailed or been tied after two periods, 17 times in 22 games.

Yikes.

Yet, they can also look like a team ready to make one last run. When the team is clicking, it is something to behold—maddening, frustrating inconsistency. “If I had an answer for you, I’d fix it,” Sullivan deadpanned. “It’s frustrating from the coach’s standpoint because I know we’re capable of more consistent play, but we haven’t found it yet. Some nights, when we play hard, we play committed, and we play the right way and work together, we’re a competitive hockey team.

And then, for whatever reason, other nights, we get away from it.”

After 22 games, just six games shy of halfway, the Penguins are what they are. There is no more sugar-coating or waiting until everyone is healthy.

And if you’re only good enough sometimes, you’re not good enough, period. It seems a Penguins trade, a shakeup, is the only shot.

Ready or not, GM Ron Hextall has to shake up the team.

Most GMs would prefer to wait, get a real sense or feel of the team, go through a thorough evaluation and analysis. Sure, before Hextall makes his first Penguins trade, he would prefer to take the prudent, patient, cautious approach.

But if he does, the Penguins will miss the playoffs.

The New York Islanders are on a six-game point streak. The Penguins could trail the Philadelphia Flyers by as much as six points with a game to go on Saturday.

And, yes, yes, the Penguins still have 16 games with the hapless Buffalo Sabres and the toothless New Jersey Devils. What makes you think the Penguins will do as well as Washington, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia have already done against those teams?

There isn’t a shred of evidence the Penguins have the spark or the energy to be a playoff team. They too often can’t show up for the first two periods of games they win. After a four-game flatline in August when all of the chips were on the table and a 22-game start this season which mirrors August., the mirror doesn’t lie.

If this season is truly the last gasp, the last stand for the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins core, and they are in WIN NOW mode, they Hextall is needed.

The Penguins need a shakeup.

This season is also eerily similar to the dipsy-do, up and down, slumber of the 2018-19 season. Then-GM Jim Rutherford was angry and let it be known publicly. He felt the team took things for granted. He was right, so in November, he traded part of the Penguins heart, Carl Hagelin, for Tanner Pearson.

The move didn’t work, and Pearson was little more than background wallpaper on the 8mm home movies of the Penguins slide to the mediocrity. But Rutherford was in the right church, just the wrong pew.

The Penguins don’t have many untouchable secondary pieces left. Jake Guentzel and probably Bryan Rust. P.O. Joseph. And maybe John Marino, who has also been inconsistent this season.

Inconsistent teams have inconsistent players. That’s the only answer that fits. There isn’t a coaching problem or a lack of talent. There is an abundance of inconsistent players.

The NHL trade deadline is April 12. That’s five weeks.

There are players with big shoulders and mean streaks out there. We found a couple who could be on the Penguins trade wishlist.

Time is short. Not because the deadline is in five weeks, but because the Penguins could well be an afterthought by then. Unfortunately, losing now doesn’t improve the Penguins’ first-round draft selection, either. That pick belongs to Minnesota for Jason Zucker.

Ready or not, Ron Hextall, you’re up.

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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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