This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
And so go the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins. Rather than the relatively graceful exit they made in last year’s playoffs, yielding to the Washington Capitals after three straight attempts, this year’s Penguins spent the entire season playing without purpose or conviction and the result is pretty much exactly as one would have expected. Meek, ineffectual, blasé. From top to bottom, the franchise has taken the goodwill generated from their heretofore unheard of (in the post-lockout era) second straight Stanley Cup and has withered away in the face of the same aggression and tenacity that won them said Cups. All this against a New York Islanders team that should not have been so easy to roll over for.
There isn’t just one symptom that lead to this relatively rapid erosion of the Penguins; it’s not like they were one goaltender or one defenseman or one forward away from being true contenders. Again, they have players with plenty of talent up and down their lineup. Every team has its stronger players and weaker players, and the good teams will make the most of every second on the ice regardless of who is out there. I genuinely believe, with the exception of one guy on defense, that the Penguins team that played in the Islanders series was the best roster the 2018-19 Penguins put out on the ice all year; with everyone healthy, there should have been no excuse not to perform at their peak capability in the face of elimination.
While it would be disingenuous of me to applaud the team for recovering from its autumn doldrums to make the playoffs, I have to admit that there was a little bit of hope in me that they would find that next gear and put on a good show in the playoffs. How foolhardy of me to allow even that modicum, that glimmer of positivity in the face of all factual and anecdotal evidence that made it clear that these Penguins were not the same ones we’d seen in the last few years. Very infrequently this year were they able to string together several cohesive games and, whether the games mattered or not, they were oftentimes miserable and moribund. Mediocre. It’s not a good place to be in, especially for many years.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings in comparison to these Penguins. I’m sure neither of those teams wanted to admit defeat in the wake of their Cup success, but they have had to yield as the realities of the salary cap era and free agency have scattered their skilled young players to the wind and inundated themselves with underperforming guys, both young and old. Nevertheless, both teams have top-five lottery picks in this summer’s Entry Draft, as they aspire to turn their fortunes around before their team’s most talented players melt away with age.
For the Penguins, it’s becoming increasingly clear that their roster, tenth-oldest in the League (tied with…oh look, the Islanders, LOL), is beginning to regress, but there doesn’t appear to be the same sort of mad dash to either shore up those aging spots or intentionally drive the team into the basement for the chance at a decent lottery draw. The opportunity arose in late November and early December, but there was too much pride and confidence (arrogance, really) in scratching their way back to playoff and Cup contention. It turned out to be a fool’s errand. Now the Penguins have nothing to show for their efforts except for a playoff participation trophy (FYI: that doesn’t exist) and middle first-round draft pick.
There was some good to consider in this season, though: another 100-point season for Sid, Jake’s first 40-goal season, another solid year for Rust and Murray, and the acquisition of some interesting young guys in Marcus Pettersson and Jared McCann, as well as Nick Bjugstad and Erik Gudbranson, who turned out to be better than we were expecting. The injuries in the lineup probably played a bigger role in limiting the cohesion the team could have experienced, and generally the teamwork suffered likely as a result. Altogether, it wasn’t a bad season. It just wasn’t a successful one, either.
Regardless of how the season ends, you always start to think about next season and what the team will look like when they take the ice in late September. With a team as mercurial as the Penguins, and a fanbase equally as temperamental, you’ll hear all manner of names being floated as possible departures. The reality is that most of what’s floated out there is unrealistic because the players named are among the major contributors on the team. Evgeni Malkin is most likely not going anywhere, nor are Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, or Matt Murray. Along with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, those guys are the core of the Penguins and, unless the front office finds an absolute diamond in the rough in their system or in the draft, those guys are sticking around because they just can’t be replaced for equal value. Maybe there are players out there who can produce as well as or better than them, or are younger and cheaper than them, but those guys rarely just fall into your lap.
Most of the rest of the depth chart is up for discussion, but when you see the widespread underproduction, it’s clear that there are a lot of players with their fair share of warts. Patric Hornqvist had been a solid producer for the Penguins, particularly on the power-play, but in the first year of a new contract extension he dropped from twenty-two points on the man advantage last year (including a career-high fifteen goals) to just twelve this year. Dominik Simon is like a Conor Sheary who can’t score goals, which is fine until he’s taken off a line with a goal scorer. Bryan Rust has shown consistency but is streaky, which is fine until he’s needed to produce because the other streaky players on the roster aren’t. Olli Maatta’s lack of speed and offensive ability has taken the luster off of his otherwise solid defensive game, and he was scratched in the last three playoff games in place of Jack Johnson, which would have been unspeakable midseason but apparently made sense in the playoffs(??).
So let’s have a look at this roster. As I said before, this Penguins roster was the tenth-oldest in the League, at an average of 28.4 years old. All but one of the expiring contracts are under this average, and none of the players with expiring contracts are major contributors to production. (The outlier is 42-year-old Matt Cullen, who will likely retire.) None of those contracts are for more than $925k. All together, there are seven expiring contracts:
- Zach Aston-Reese: $925k, arbitration-eligible RFA
- Marcus Pettersson: ~$794k, RFA
- Matt Cullen: $650k, UFA
- Teddy Blueger: $650k, arbitration-eligible RFA
- Garrett Wilson: $650k, UFA
- Zach Trotman: $650k, UFA
- Chad Ruhwedel: $650k, UFA
I’m assuming all the RFAs are sticking around, and I’m also assuming the UFAs are all goners. That leaves four open roster spots for next season: two forwards, two defensemen. I’m sure the team could promote some guys from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to replace Cullen and Wilson, but there are so many questions about the defensive corps after Letang (for some, those questions include Letang) and the fact that general manager Jim Rutherford sought to improve the defense through trades instead of promotion (see: Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson), it was made clear that the WB/S options were insufficient. That’s not a big surprise, as it usually takes guys years to mature enough from the AHL to the NHL, but it also shows that the cupboard is very bare.
At the end of the day, we’re looking at a simple question (“How do you improve the roster?”) with no simple answers. To be sure, the entirety of the fanbase and media has suggested that just about everyone should be gone, with the near-universal exception of Crosby, Guentzel, and Casey DeSmith. The truth of the matter is that much of the roster will remain the same, and maybe some big name(s) will be shipped out, but there’s likely no one trick to fixing the mess when you’ve got your major producers under no-trade/no-movement deals, your medium producers have hampered their values by being unproductive, and your weakest producers are not worth the effort to trade. And, of course, the salary cap is always a concern, and for a team that’s “all-in” like the Penguins are, they’re usually right up against it, with little wiggle room.
This seems like a good time to discuss the future of the franchise. It was 2014 that was the last time the Penguins had a first-round pick, the twenty-second overall pick that was used on Kasperi Kapanen. The bad news here is that the last first round pick the Penguins made that is still with the team is Olli Maatta, drafted in 2012, but he might not be with the team by the beginning of next season. The good news is that the team has tried to make the best of its later-round picks; Guentzel, Rust, and Letang come to mind. But striking it right in the later rounds is often more time-consuming and risky, and the team hasn’t had much luck in the last seven years turning those prospects into something productive for the parent squad. Guentzel, Rust, and Murray have been successful, Maatta somewhat less so, and we’re finally getting to see that Blueger might be a useful depth NHLer. Then again, Oskar Sundqvist is perhaps just as good if not better than Blueger already, but he had to go for the Penguins to get Kessel.
Now, I’m not the best at prospects, but from what I understand there isn’t a whole lot to work with, at least not in the immediate future. There certainly aren’t guys who will fill, say, Evgeni Malkin’s skates, or Letang’s, or Kessel’s so when it’s suggested that those guys are some of the players up for discussion in the offseason, realize now that their production is not going to be replaced. You’re talking about trading those guys most likely prospects and draft picks, and now you’re talking about the future. Which is another way of saying the Cup window is going to be shut. So there’s two options: either Rutherford tries a minor tinkering and sees what next year brings, or he sells the team’s major assets and gives up on the next couple of years. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that the two Cups in 2016 and 2017 are enough glory for now. Go get the best deal you can, and see if you can get at least Sid et al. another Cup before they’re totally done.
Speaking of Rutherford, I think his time to go is coming. I was thinking that between now and next year’s Entry Draft that he was going to be replaced, but I just learned that the extension he signed goes through the 2021-22 season, so there goes that idea. Since the Penguins are likely going to stick with him, there has to be a return to some semblance of pragmatism. Is he going to finally start retaining those first-round picks? Is he going to stop acquiring players that are not productive? Who’s going to stop him from continuing to make decisions that harm the team both now and in the next five-to-ten years? He has shown the ability to be creative with his assets and I wouldn’t put it past him to shake up the roster significantly from now until the next trade deadline in February 2020. But, as Malkin put it in the first offseason interview after the series ended, the League has very little respect for the Penguins, and that’s from the players through the referees up to the front offices of the League. No one wants to see them succeed again so soon after those back-to-back Cups, and that’s a tough hill to climb. It makes getting the best value for your assets very difficult.
I haven’t mentioned head coach Mike Sullivan yet. I haven’t liked how he’s handled his personnel, his tactics, and his strategies, and that all came to a head in this past series against the Islanders. The Penguins were in perfectly fine shape despite the Game 1 loss in overtime, but Sullivan made the fateful decision to dress Johnson and scratch Maatta. After that, they were unable to get much of anything going, and he began throwing the roster into a blender, which has rarely worked for this team. In many ways, it’s likely that Sullivan’s move was made to spite Rutherford’s acquisition of Johnson, which is not a great way to coach a team.
I haven’t enjoyed Sullivan’s handling of the roster in the last couple of years, and I think it’s showing in how the players perform. Unfortunately for him, it’s easier to replace a coach and improve a team’s performance than it is to replace players and do the same. I’m sure he’ll stay with the team through the beginning of next season, but I suspect he too will be on the hot seat through to Draft Day 2020. What’s more likely is you’ll see some changes in the assistants, particularly with the defensive coaches, and especially with Jacques Martin. The main complaints from Sullivan in the wake of this playoff elimination were that the defense did not do their jobs sufficiently. Sergei Gonchar is less likely to go than Martin for a number of reasons (his relationship with Malkin, and his interaction with the defense in line rushes). But if the team is largely unchanged heading into next season, the leash will likely be short for Sullivan.
There will be plenty of time to discuss the Penguins from now until September, much as there always is, but for now not much will be happening while the playoffs are still going on. Spring has only just begun but, unlike in years past when the playoffs would usually go until at least May and sometimes June, we’re already thinking about summer. I hope you all are able to relax and breath easy, despite the Penguins not making a deeper run in the postseason. I’ve got a garden to grow, chickens to wrangle, a two-year-old to raise, and my second son (Crosby!) due in mid-June. (And, of course, a job. Gotta pay them bills!)
So, on behalf of myself, SouthSideGeno, Finn, Rad (come back soon!), GutsGoneBad, PensPointsYourMom, Ungaba, Andy Peppers, Jovi, Brendan, Andy Peppers, and any and everyone else who has contributed to this blog, I hope you all have enjoyed our coverage of the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins. We’re a bunch of amateurs, but we all love what we do. We’ll stick around for you through the summer, so we hope you’ll stick around for us!