The doom and gloom crowd was in full force last fall. There was a boisterous contingent of social media commenters who absolutely, stridently, insisted the Pittsburgh Penguins would not make the playoffs. Pittsburgh Hockey Now had a handful who repeatedly commented on every story we wrote. The Penguins laid waste to those expectations with an extraordinary first 40 games of the season. They kept winning well past the first 50 games, too.
So, the odds the Pittsburgh Penguins would or could miss the playoffs, even if the full NHL season resumed immediately, are in single digits.
If you’re the glass half full type, we looked at the three things the Pittsburgh Penguins got right. But not everything the Penguins have done this season has turned to gold, and some were perhaps predictable. Be forewarned: Hindsight is 20/20, so decisions that seemed proper at the moment but didn’t work don’t qualify.
Things the Pittsburgh Penguins Got Wrong
1. Juuso Riikola / Erik Gudbranson
The Penguins coaches with Mike Sullivan and GM Jim Rutherford didn’t get the situation wrong, as much as they didn’t potentially maximize their possessions.
Riikola, the Penguins mullet-wearing, zippy, Finnish-speaking, stiff-at-the-blue line defenseman deserved a better shot to begin his NHL career in earnest. The Penguins defensive corps is an area in which many have opinions, but in this case, popular fan opinion is at least in the right church, if not the right pew.
John Marino gave the Penguins an unexpected option they needed to use. Marino was ready for NHL ice and going to benefit the Penguins. The resulting Rubix Cube of decisions left Riikola and Erik Gudbranson in the press box.
It made sense to roll with these pairs:
However, the Penguins could have perhaps improved their lot with the raw materials at their disposal with a little bit of patience. It’s no guarantee the Penguins could have been better off with a bit of experimentation, but they could be.
The bottom pairs:
At least for a few weeks in October. You’ll notice, I’ve placed Riikola ahead of Jack Johnson. In the short run, Riikola needed ice, and paired with Gudbranson was the best short term option. In that scenario (which I did advocate at the moment), Riikola could have grown his game, or we could have received some answers.
“But wait about Schultz?!” you just screamed. Perhaps Justin Schultz should have been the defenseman on the trade block. So, we’ll operate with that scenario or that Marino could have waited a few weeks in WBS. The Penguins did send Marino to the AHL before the start of the season. So, both are plausible scenarios.
And, please, dear God, enough with the comments on Johnson. Most of the popular opinions on Johnson are cringy to hockey folks. Take that for what its worth.
Now, it’s vital to note the Penguins internal evaluations on Riikola are consistent with PHN evaluations, too. Sources shared the Penguins thinking on Riikola’s shortcomings, and they are legitimate. He can get lost in the defensive zone, he doesn’t get his nose dirty in the corner battles (at least as a defenseman), and the Penguins believe his transition to the North American game has been slow.
From the press box, it’s been even slower.
When the Penguins traded Gudbranson, they lost a large chunk of physicality, literally and figuratively. If the Penguins have a go against the Washington Capitals in a seven-game series, the intense physicality will rival the second and third periods of the Penguins 4-3 win over Washington on Feb. 2. You’ll note the success. I’ll note the Penguins couldn’t possibly win that game four times out of seven. Matt Murray stole two points in the face of a Washington onslaught, which pounded the Penguins into near submission.
If this season resumes, they will miss the thump Gudbranson brought. Gudbranson also showed he could move the puck, too.
If Riikola flatlined, the Penguins would have had a better shot sending him to Wilkes-Barre Scranton. If Riikola succeeded, Johnson would have been expendable. The Penguins nearly traded Johnson at the beginning of the season, anyway. Remember that fiasco?