The two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer the dominant team they once were. Talk of a three-peat and a dynasty seem like distant memories now. Over the first half of this season, the Pens have resembled the dysfunctional team that Head Coach Mike Sullivan took over about two years ago.
With about half the season gone, it’s too early to panic. However, if the Pens want to return to contender form, some significant changes are needed. Not the bottom-six swap kind of changes, but headline-inducing changes that remind players there is no job security.
Ok, Malkin and Crosby are not as bad as the numbers indicate, so the same is probably true for Guentzel, Rust, Murray, and even Letang. However, this team is in a full-on funk/rut/malaise – whatever you want to call it – and needs a collective slap across the face.
Big Players Big Changes
The Penguins have been blessed with some big-time star players over the past few decades, but even the best players sometimes need a change of scenery. Exhibit One – Phil Kessel. Struggling in Toronto (mostly to meet ridiculous expectations) he has been nothing short of reborn in Pittsburgh. Even this year he has been one of the few consistently shining stars. Young guys can be expected to have some slumps, especially a second-year player like Guenzel.
But Kris Letang is costing the Penguins far more than his salary right now. He has had a history of sloppy, poor defensive play, which is mostly overlooked because he is a “dynamic offensive talent.” He seems to commit huge turnovers each and every game now. Even though they don’t all end up in the net, they are embarrassing momentum killers. They also deflate the Penguins “swagger” – and they don’t have much of that left right now.
Sidney Crosby is not exempt from this discussion. He seems disinterested at times, and is once again throwing blind backhand passes to nobody, and cross-ice passes through traffic. These were his bad habits in the months after his return from concussions. Back then, it was thought he was mentally not 100%, but with no known concussions this season, it seems to be a lack of focus or intensity, more than anything else.
Changes I Would Recommend
With all of the above, here are some changes I would recommend to GM Jim Rutherford. I am sure he is reading this column and is very interested in what this amateur armchair coach/player/GM thinks – so here goes:
Deal Kris Letang
I know this one gets put on the table every couple years, but I think the time is right. Letang is not playing ‘the right way’ as Sullivan would say, and makes too much money to be hurting the Pens on the ice. He still has some good years left, and is a high-skill player that can bring immediate improvement to some less-established teams. Rutherford can probably parlay the salary relief and trade returns into two bottom pair D-man and upgrade one or two bottom-six forwards. Preferably some younger players with speed, who didn’t fit in on other teams. Can’t we get Trevor Daley back?
Real Goalie Rotation
I get that Matt Murray is your starter, and you want to win games. However, the Pens need to put Tristan Jarry in the net way more than they have. First, Murray has shown some fatigue this year. Second, even if they eventually part ways with Jarry, they need to know exactly what they have, and playing him in 10 games isn’t going to help. Finally, Murray hasn’t exactly been tearing it up this season. While I would lean on Murray exclusively when the playoffs arrive, I would be splitting the starts 60-40 right now.
Deal Hags and Rowney
As much as Carl Hagelin impressed with his speed when he first arrived, has has underwhelmed over the last 18 months. His history shows that a change of teams gives him a boost, and that could be a good selling point. Carter Rowney isn’t bad, but he isn’t getting any better, and isn’t good enough. The hope here is that he and Hagelin might bring a return with more potential upside then these two have.
Join Malkin and Kessel at the Hip
Malkin and Kessel have magic chemistry, and the Pens are way short of that right now. That second line should be Rust/Malkin/Kessel and etched in stone. Similarly, keep Guentzel and Crosby together with Sheary. Leave those top lines together and fix the bottom-six.
The Time is Now
In recent articles, I have talked about how the early part of the season doesn’t mean much. I also talked about how the Pens slow start is understandable for a variety of reasons. But January is the month where troubling tendencies turn into outright deficiencies. And the Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot of them. This team’s core players, along with coaching staff and front office have shown they know what it takes to win championships. However, with all the player, coach, and front office changes this offseason, it won’t be easy to get the Pens back to championship form. It will take time and real change – and it needs to start now.