His voice trailed off. The fire which emanated from his eyes Tuesday was replaced by a somberness. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t have any answers why a team which has more talent than nearly every other NHL club is flubbing their chances at even strength.
With an unusually quiet demeanor, Sullivan proffered, “We’ll consider everything. We…don’t leave anything off the table.”
It was at that point Sullivan uncharacteristically veered expressing an emotion he seldom has: Dismay. After 13 months of trying to solve the talented Penguins 5v5 woes, Sullivan seemingly threw up his hands.
“We’ve tweaked lines and combinations to see if we could get a spark. I think we got some quality chances. We’ve had some quality chances that we haven’t finished,” Sullivan said with long pauses. “And if we finish on a handful of those over the last couple weeks then maybe we’re not in the same position that we’re in.”
The position the Penguins find themselves is not pretty. They have lost seven of their last eight. Their only win was against a Western Conference, non-playoff team (Arizona Coyotes).
This season, the Penguins are 2-7-2 against Eastern Conference teams. The Penguins only wins over Eastern Conference teams were on opening night–an overtime win over Washington–and they kicked off their four-game Canadian road trip with a 3-0 shutout in Toronto, way back on Oct. 18.
In other words, it’s been nearly a month since the Penguins beat an Eastern Conference team. In the meantime, they’ve lost to Metro Division cellar dweller, the New Jersey Devils twice despite New Jersey’s struggles to win games. They’re 0-1-1 against the New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens.
On paper, the Penguins appear fine. They’re ninth in goals scored, 5v5 (40). They have a positive goal differential at 5v5 (+4). But things are not rosy. As Sullivan pointed out–they’re in a bad “position.”
Since coming back from western Canada, the Penguins have been outscored 28-12 in seven games against Eastern Conference opponents. If you choose to add the Arizona win, the stat only marginally improves to being outscored 28-16 in eight games.
The Penguins have received exactly two points at 5v5 from Riley Sheahan, who is making just over $2 million this season. Matt Cullen has chipped in three points (1g, 2a) at even strength, the same as Bryan Rust. Though Rust just signed a four-year deal which pays him $3.5 million annually.
Curiously, Jake Guentzel does not have a primary assist this season but has five goals and five assists in 18 games.
And we haven’t even touched the Penguins goaltending or defensive woes, yet.
If you watch Sullivan’s postgame press conference, there were at several moments which felt like he wanted to throw up his hands. The Penguins coaches have cajoled, pushed, prodded, begged, pleaded, scolded, yelled, demanded and punished players to varying degrees of success. The team’s inability to consistently deliver winning efforts is the reason Tanner Pearson is now a Penguins forward and GM Jim Rutherford said his “patience has run out,” with his current team.
How can a team with so many pieces look like it has so few?
How can a team which had the fortitude and grit to grind its way to a pair of Stanley Cups now be outworked and outscored by bottom feeders and middle-packers?
For those anxiously waiting to conclude the coach bears responsibility, wait much longer. Sullivan doesn’t force Evgeni Malkin to give up glorious scoring chances for an extra pass. Sullivan doesn’t knock Murray off his angle or nor does Sullivan help his role players brick scoring chances.
The coach has not lost his room and that’s not even close. But the players are struggling with themselves and that is leaving Sullivan with fewer and fewer options.