What the Pittsburgh Penguins need this Christmas

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 14: Head coach Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins yells on the bench behind (L-R) Sidney Crosby
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 14: Head coach Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins yells on the bench behind (L-R) Sidney Crosby /

The Pittsburgh Penguins have entered the Christmas break after an abysmal 4-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. The Pens are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games, currently sit seventh out of eight teams in the Metropolitan Division, and are three points out of a playoff spot.

This is not the team that won the Stanley Cup in the past two years. So what do they need from Santa in order to return to their Cup-winning form?

Call up Daniel Sprong

The Pittsburgh Penguins are desperate for offense—they were just shut out by a goaltender who previously had an .828 save percentage and a whopping 6.74 goals-against average in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Sprong has had 15 goals and 22 points so far this season with the baby Pens.

The Dutch-born rookie is 8th in the AHL in goals and 5th in power play goals with 7. However, his plus-minus is -6, the worst on the team, and the rumor is that the Penguins have yet to recall him due to the deficiency of his defensive play. (Although I seriously doubt Sprong could be any worse defensively than the Penguins were against the Ducks…)

Veteran Leadership

The Penguins lost a lot of veteran presence and leadership with the departures of Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz, and Marc-Andre Fleury over the summer to free agency and the expansion draft, respectively—and that loss shows. Sidney Crosby has always been a solid captain, but he’s well-known for leading by example, not vocally. Evgeni Malkin seems to be the same way as an assistant captain. And the Penguins really miss the vocal leadership in the room.

Maybe Crosby and Malkin are struggling with motivation. As Ken Dryden discussed in his book The Game, players lose their hunger to win after winning a Cup or two. Teams stop playing to win, and instead play not to lose. The Pens need to add someone in the locker room with the vocal charisma to spark this team for regular-season games that might feel dull or routine, but that are nevertheless important for playoff positioning.

Defense, Defense, Defense

The Pittsburgh Penguins have struggled with defense all year. Kris Letang played particularly poorly against Anaheim; he had two giveaways that led directly to two goals against. Letang is third in the league—and first on the team—in giveaways, with a heinous 55 so far this year. Considering Ian Cole’s frequent healthy scratches and pending UFA status, it’s likely that he’s being shopped by general manager Jim Rutherford, and Rutherford has already picked up Jamie Oleksiak from the Dallas Stars. However, the Penguins are still thin on the blueline. Justin Schultz has been on the IR for most of December with a lower-body injury; Matt Hunwick has only played 21 games so far this season.

Part of the reason the Pens’ defense is hurting is because of their lack of offense. Team defense is improved with the ability to forecheck and maintain offensive zone pressure, which the Penguins lack. Their offensive depth has taken a big hit since last season with the loss of forwards Cullen, Kunitz, and Nick Bonino; the Penguins no longer roll four lines. Pugnacious anchor Ryan Reaves averages 6:41 time on ice per game, the lowest on the team. His linemates, Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl, average 11:00 and 10:13 TOI per game, respectively. These are higher than Reaves only because they are both penalty-killers. The Penguins are relying heavily on their first two lines right now, and they’re not producing—and I’m told it’s not possible to win a hockey game without scoring at least one goal.

Next: Ian Cole Trade Looms

The Pittsburgh Penguins are back in action Wednesday, December 27 at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Head coach Mike Sullivan said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the loss to the Ducks, “My hope is, over the next couple of days, every one of us does a little bit of soul-searching and comes back…with the right frame of mind to make sure that we move this team in the right direction”. Let’s hope that the Penguins find their swagger again over the break.