By Joseph Yanarella
Like most other seasons in the Crosby/Malkin Era, the Penguins entered 18/19 with Stanley Cup aspirations.
Instead, for the first time since 2005, they since themselves at the bottom of the East in mid-November. There’s no quick fix, but some areas of concern loom larger than others.
*The big red flags
1. They’re not the fastest team anymore
The Penguins teams that repeated as Stanley Cup champions were built on speed, but the rest of the league has caught up. Just as the Devils of the 90s pioneered the neutral zone trap and many others followed suit, so too has the league today with the speed approach. Speed and skill are quickly becoming valued over size and physicality, and teams are building accordingly. When you’re the fastest team, the speed approach works. When you’re – maybe – average, you have to find different ways to win. Mike Sullivan loves to see his team outskate the opponent, but he may have to change his tune a bit to accommodate the new roster.
2. 50/50 battles
Outside of Sidney Crosby, who’s spent the last week injured, the Penguins don’t seem to have anyone consistently winning board battles, and it’s an issue in both ends. In the offensive zone, they can’t keep a cycle going and create chances for their shooters. They’re relying on lateral passes far too much, and far too often they’ve been taken the other way. In their own zone, the inability to win down low is giving opponents the opportunity to create quality chances that are getting past Matt Murray with alarming frequency – more on him in a bit. This is one of the easiest issues to fix, and I expect them to come out with more tenacity.
3. Matt Murray is snake-bitten
I hate to say it, I really do. I’m one of his biggest fans. I’ll be one of the first to tell you that the guys in front of him haven’t done him any favors. And yes, I still believe he’ll bounce back. But as of right now, he’s not playing up to anyone’s standards. Like I said, the guys up front aren’t doing him any favors, but he hasn’t made many spectacular saves, stood on his head to win the team a game, or even strung together a few solid starts. These are all things that are part of the expectations that come from having as much success as he has this early in his career. He’s not Carey Price and I don’t expect him to almost single handedly carry this team, but having stymied teams like the Capitals, Sharks, Lightning, and Predators in the playoffs in recent years has created the expectation that he’s capable of much, much more.
It’s a problem for sure
4. They’re not getting depth scoring
Riley Sheahan has one goal and two points so far, despite having played in all but one game and being given an opportunity to center a line with Phil Kessel on it. Daniel Sprong hasn’t scored yet in 14 games. Derek Grant has yet to register a point in 9 games. Bryan Rust, despite seeing some time in the top-6, has one goal and five points. Matt Cullen, often looking overmatched, is now out long-term with an injury. Derrick Brassard hasn’t been spectacular, but we’ll give him a slight pass because of injury – although more than two goals every ten games would be nice. The guys at the top of the lineup are getting it done, but the bottom-6 is failing this team. Aside from speed, perhaps the most prominent penchant of the Mike Sullivan Penguins has been the ability to role four lines. They haven’t shown the ability to do that effectively.
5. The D-men are invisible
Okay, aside from Kris Letang, who’s been their best and most consistent player thus far. Dumoulin gets a bit of a pass too, because he’s just who he is, a no-frills shutdown guy. Olli Maatta has taken a step back (or nowhere given he often looks like he’s skating in cement) after a promising 17/18 campaign. Justin Schultz is out. Jamie Oleksiak has shown streaky offensive ability, but many of his points came when the Penguins (or more believably, their doppelgangers) were torching western Canada. Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola look like capable fill-in guys and not much more. Jack Johnson is, well, pretty much exactly what everyone though he’d be. They need more from the blueline, especially when it comes to creating clean breakouts, something only Letang seems able to do thus far.
What can you do?
6. They miss their old coaches
Coaching turnover and changes in situations happen, much to the dismay of this team. Losing Rick Tocchet was a blow for this staff, and his presence on the bench can’t be understated, especially given his role as ambassador between Kessel and Mike Sullivan. I’m sure Sully is turning various shades of red at this point watching his team lose battles and take dumb penalties, and Tocchet was the guy who he relied on to help with issues like this. Sergei Gonchar is sorely missed as well, having gone back to part-time to spend more time with his family. Gonch played a critical role in helping the Pens defensemen – including two reclamation projects in Schultz and Oleksiak – play up to their potential. Without him, their defense corps has looked lost and unstructured far too much.
You’ve heard of the elephant in the room, well the Pens have at least six right now. Some of these issues are easier to fix than other – you can’t just call take-backs on Rick Tocchet or trade your slowest players for faster ones. More tenacity and discipline would be a great place to start, and would help to fix at least three of these. It’s early, and they have the star power to get it done, especially given the woeful state of the Metro right now, but things have to change quickly if the Penguins want to live up to expectations and make the most out of one of the final great years we could see from Sid and Geno.