Gameday 45 and 46: FLAwed MenTaLity

It’s officially torches and pitchforks season for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fanbase, as many of the few remaining optimists in the group have finally started to lose faith in the team. Monday’s 5-2 loss while visiting the Arizona Coyotes saw the Penguins make many of the same embarrassing mistakes they have been making for the last few years.

Just for kicks they even added a new one for the Greatest Shits lowlight reel thanks to Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin gifting the Coyotes a back-breaking power-play goal to make the score 4-2 without Arizona even taking a shot on goal. Arizona had a delayed penalty against them, so head coach Mike Sullivan pulled Tristan Jarry, which is what every coach does every single time. What doesn’t happen every single time (and I am giving the Coyotes a lot more credit than is probably deserved here) is the opposing forecheckers forcing Letang…

…into a brainfart of a no-look drop-pass to Malkin, who was equal parts not expecting the pass but also not really with it himself, and the puck redirected embarrassingly off of Malkin’s stick and just across the Penguins’ goal line before Malkin recovered. And so, Pittsburgh did not recover and were handed their second regulation loss in a row.

By the time you read this, it is entirely possible that something has changed, either a trade or a new coach…something that will affect the trajectory of the 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins in some measurable fashion. For the past three-plus years, the Penguins have been stuck in mediocrity regardless of who they’ve put on the roster. I am reminded of one of Mr. Miyagi’s many lessons from The Karate Kid: “Walk on road, hm? Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, squish, get the squish just like grape.” Pittsburgh’s players, coaches, management, all of them believe that they are a team that can make the playoffs and legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup. The results on the ice and on the scoresheet often say the opposite. Ultimately, they are in the middle of the road, trapped in mediocrity, and much as they have for the past several seasons they are going to get squished unless something changes.

It’s also entirely possible that nothing of substance will change, especially if you take Kyle Dubas at his word. Back in December he defended Mike Sullivan and gave every indication that the head coach was not going anywhere. He wasn’t as explicit about the rest of the coaching staff, but Dubas sounded satisfied with how they’ve been able to adapt when necessary. (I’m not sure which adaptations have proven to fix any of the Penguins’ recurring issues, but okay.) This past week there were indications from insider Elliotte Friedman that Pittsburgh would be modest buyers at the trade deadline, making only marginal changes rather than some blockbuster deal, but nevertheless the team would not be selling. This was before the Penguins dropped consecutive games against Western Conference opponents that left them likely to fall further behind in the playoff race, so perhaps the mentality has changed.

One way or another, the Pittsburgh Penguins cannot continue on this path for much longer. I mean, they certainly could continue to scuffle along on the playoff bubble, but they played this game last year and burned themselves on the penultimate game of the season. This is what happens to mediocre teams: they don’t win championships, and they don’t acquire enough quality assets to rebuild cheaply, quickly, and from within. Those teams also destroy the morale of fans and likely players and coaches as well, and it leads to a situation where players don’t want to come to or stay with a team with no hope, either near-term or long-term. The Penguins also aren’t in the position to be rebuilding yet and they won’t be until Crosby, Malkin and Letang are gone, which won’t be for at least another two or three years. It’s an unsustainable position, but this is what happens when you aren’t more prudent with your draft picks and cap space.

Before getting into the All-Star break, the Penguins host a back-to-back with two foes from the Atlantic Division: the Florida Panthers, safely in second place in the Atlantic as they seek to prove their Stanley Cup Finals appearance last season wasn’t a fluke;

…and the Montreal Canadiens, who are always a problem for Pittsburgh, even when they seem like a weaker opponent (as evidenced by their being eight points out of the Wild Card race).

If the Penguins are realistic about being a playoff team, they can’t lose either game. They really can’t lose many more games at all, frankly, and that too is unsustainable.