Gameday 39: Dry Heave

The Pittsburgh Penguins got a couple of days off to chew on their sixth straight loss, this time a 5-2 flop against the Vegas Golden Knights. As usual the top line had to do the heavy lifting for Pittsburgh, with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel notching two points each (including Sid’s first goal in five games) and Ty Smith scoring his first goal with the Penguins. The rest of the team however was just as useful as it has been for the past two weeks, which is to say not very useful at all.

The team is reaping what they have sown from years of an “all-in” mentality. Between Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford the team retained only a few of their first-round draft picks. This was fine at the time as they found success in later rounds of the draft, and eventually they won two Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, but since then there has been no genuine effort to both keep the team competitive and remain modestly prepared for the future. In years past we have seen injuries and health problems seemingly hamper the lineup on paper, but the Penguins were able to persevere and actually play surprisingly well. But right now the team is without two of its top four defensemen and its starting goaltender and they do not have adequate replacements for any of them. Tack on the continued offensive struggles and the head coach’s persistence to not make do with the players he has, and it’s all a recipe for disaster. And that’s exactly what we’re looking at right now.

The silence coming from the front office is deafening. The team’s playoff chances are eroding out from under their feet; whereas on December 15 they were within a win or two of first place of the division, they are now two points behind the New York Islanders for the second Wild Card spot. If they can’t get themselves sorted and start winning again, they risk getting passed by the logjam of teams which are likewise a couple or so wins away from them. At this point it’s not unreasonable to think that the team needs to make a trade (or two…or three…), but just what assets the team could part with is a massive concern as well.

If the team is indeed “all-in”, all draft picks and prospects should be on the table. Problem is few of those assets have much value: the prospect pool is amongst the most shallow in the entire League, and mid-first-round draft picks such as the ones Pittsburgh has generally ended up with (or traded) don’t have a whole lot more value than those later on in the round. More to the point on the prospect front, it is somewhat telling that the likes of Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare, long considered amongst the best prospects the Penguins have, are constantly overlooked for promotion when the need arises. Granted some of that comes from the situation (right now it’s defensemen who are out, but they’re not going to deploy scoring forwards in fourth line roles), but that is more an indictment of Mike Sullivan again insisting things be done a certain way. This insistence that the fourth line be only guys who are used mainly in a defensive fashion is very reminiscent of the Dan Bylsma/Craig Adams days, which is to say it didn’t go very well. Meanwhile we can’t forget that the third line which is expected to bring some offensive production has been more miss than hit over the past few years.

Mein Training Kamp

If they can’t find quality trades in using their draft picks and prospects alone, then they have to start looking at the roster players, and that’s where things get hairy. The team has seven UFAs this offseason, the most expensive of whom are Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin, and Tristan Jarry. Zucker is finally playing up to expectations in the final year of his contract, producing offense at a rate near his career best, so trading him would probably only happen if Pittsburgh was well out of the playoff race. Dumoulin has been a shadow of his former self (being compared to Rob Scuderi’s second stint with the Penguins is not a good thing) so it seems improbable that he will be sent on his way before the offseason. Jarry is the only goalie of true value in the franchise and, like much of his teammates, he is prone to being streaky. There’s no good reason to trade any of these guys or any of the other free agents (Danton Heinen, Teddy Blueger, Josh Archibald, Dustin Tokarski) as long as the team has it in its head that they will make a serious playoff run. Besides Dumoulin, all of these guys have been generally meeting expectations.

The injuries the team is currently dealing with are gratefully short-term problems as far as we know. Once those guys (Jeff Petry, Kris Letang, Jarry) are back in the lineup, that will hopefully lead to improved results in general. But will Dumoulin ever find a way back to his old self; if not, will Sullivan finally come around to scratching him? Can general manager Ron Hextall finagle his way to improving the offensive production of the bottom six? Will this team find a consistently positive groove before the playoffs fall completely out of reach? Unfortunately the whole situation right now (injuries, salary cap, prospects, assets, chronic underperformance, ineffective coaching) doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, and that might be why we’re seeing a lot of status quo across the board. But if the Pittsburgh Penguins are indeed interested in making a deep playoff run, something out of all those issues has to change.