The Pittsburgh Penguins lack of puck-moving defensemen and forward depth were devastating problems against the Buffalo Sabres, Monday. So too was the Penguins stars handing the puck over like grandma dishing mashed potatoes at the kid’s table on Thanksgiving.
Those same problems have been their fatal flaw as the team has won just one game in their last 10. Somehow the “loser point” earned against Buffalo seems appropriately named. The Penguins could say they earned a point against Buffalo, just as they said they could build on the third period against Ottawa, just as they have said they’ve deserved better results in several games like losses to Washington and the New York Islanders during this catastrophic free fall.
“We feel like some of the games we lost, we probably should have won,” said Derick Brassard.
“I thought we did a lot of good things tonight,” said goaltender Casey DeSmith.
“Whenever you get a point, it’s a step in the right direction,” Jake Guentzel said.
“There was a lot to like about our game, our effort,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “We certainly have to clean up some areas defensively but there was also a lot to like in this game, as well.”
They can say a lot of things. But the results speak louder. Actually, the results and the lack of conviction in the comments were screaming like Jamie Lee Curtis being chased by an inverted William Shatner mask.
And a terrified fan base now has every right to wonder and worry if the Pittsburgh Penguins’ unprecedented salary cap-era dynasty is coming to a close.
Things should not be this bad. Teams should not be pinning the Penguins into their zone with aplomb, zipping shots through leaky goaltenders or engaging in open ice rushes when the game is on the line. The Penguins shouldn’t be scrambling to find line combinations and defensive pairings. Nor should the Penguins be sullen or desperate just 19 games into a season.
But this is where they are. Last place in the Metro Division. Last place in the Eastern Conference. Seven points behind Boston for a wild-card spot and five points behind arch-rival Washington for third place in the Metro with four teams between the Penguins and Washington.
Actually make it five teams between the Penguins and Washington, as no team beats the Penguins quite like the Penguins.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s comments and frustration two weeks ago are even more prescient now. Rutherford not only knew things were bad, but he knew they were bad enough that he had to publicly call out his team and go shopping for some new faces to drop into the Penguins locker room.
Thus far, only Tanner Pearson has appeared and Carl Hagelin disappeared.
Unlike his dynastic predecessors. Stan Bowman in Chicago and Dean Lombardi in L.A., Rutherford has not handed out onerous and large contracts to players well beyond their prime. And so the Penguins still have a chance. Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan still have a chance to fix what ails the Penguins.
In the meantime, the obvious solution which is to adopt a simple, physical style more befitting their roster does not seem to interest a few players. The lines which adopt it have had success. And when the Penguins top line including Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin adopted it Monday night, they had success. Yet somehow that same success which was born of the simple game became the Penguins undoing as players abandoned it for the pretty hockey, like some sort of satisfied reward for temporarily downsizing their game.
The Penguins have too many players coming up too short. The Penguins had significant plans for Riley Sheahan. Now those plans include press box time when Sidney Crosby returns, probably later this week. But Sheahan is on a one-year deal. The Penguins also had bigger hopes than five points for Bryan Rust (1g, 4a) when they handed him a four-year contract with a $3.5 million AAV. But Rust is only 26-years-old. And of course 21-year-old Daniel Sprong, whom the Penguins expected to be a contributor, not a long-term development project when they signed him to a two-year deal.
Even Jake Guentzel with seven goals and six assists in 19 games seems to be underperforming what was thought possible. Guentzel is currently on pace for about 52 points, but next level numbers were expected. Guentzel will be an RFA this summer.
And Matt Murray has well underperformed his expectations. Perhaps especially Murray, who is finally dealing with the growing pains he evaded until after a pair of Stanley Cups. Murray has one year remaining on his affordable contract which carries only a $3.75 million cap hit.
The Penguins have given up 39 goals in their last nine games against Eastern Conference teams. Sullivan has stopped commenting on his team’s lack of swagger, instead praising the few things his team has done right because to do more would be to break an already fragile group. Patric Hornqvist is no longer make proclamations that “one shift will turnaround the season.”
No, those sentiments have been replaced by hollow moral victories.
But the playoff seedings don’t count moral points.
And so Penguins fans are now justified if they ask–Is this the end? It certainly seems that way unless Rutherford…or the players make real changes.