Last season, at about this time of year Jim Rutherford and the Pittsburgh Penguins got really aggressive. They weren't happy with their floundering team so they made some monumental in-season changes. The coach was fired. The Daley/Scuderi trade joyously happened, followed soon after by the Hagelin for Perron trade. Young forwards were called up and given chances to perform and add speed and enthusiasm to a team that needed it.
We all know the rest of the story: everything worked out aces and all those changes helped the core group of players rally to the franchise's 4th Stanley Cup.
One year later, will Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan be as aggressive to identify areas that need improvement and then implement changes, drastic when needed?
One major area that's coming into focus is the production from the left wing. Carl Hagelin has just 1 goal and 4 assists in last 19 games (and just 0g+1a in last 5). Chris Kunitz has no goals and 1 assist in last 8 games since returning from injury (and has been without a point in last 6 games). Further Scott Wilson has just 1 goal and no assists in last 5 games, which is heavy-handed given his 4th line role and opportunities but further evidence of recent production struggles the Penguins have had at LW, outside of the outstanding job that Conor Sheary has done on the top line.
This issue for Hagelin and Kunitz is compounded by line assignments. Kunitz has played 229 of his 343 5v5 minutes along-side Evgeni Malkin, yet has 2 goals on the season. Hagelin has spent 231 total minutes (out of 411) with either Malkin or Sidney Crosby and he's only got 3.
And the lack of recent production isn't just limited to the left-side. Patric Hornqvist (0 points in last 5 games, one goal in last 9) hasn't been lighting it up either, but the left-side is more glaring. Hornqvist has the highest GF/60 on the team, reasonable to see he's opening up space and crashing the net for others, even if Hornqvist isn't personally getting points the puck is still going in the net a lot while he's out there. Plus there's a realistic option that IS producing points that could help on the LW.
Since his return to the AHL, Guentzel has 5 goals and 4 assists in six games. He's gone:— Seth Lakso (@CVSethLakso) December 18, 2016
Jake Guentzel impressed in his NHL cameo, scoring 3 goals and adding an assist in 5 games. Those 3 goals are more than Kunitz (2) as all season in 26 games, and the same number Haeglin has in 32 games.
Of course, Guentzel is young and untested. The Penguins felt his game slipped a little in his five contests in Pittsburgh. They might be of the mindset, and perhaps accurately so, that Guentzel's long-term development is better suited at the AHL level right now than in the NHL.
However, if left wingers like Kunitz and Hagelin continue to struggle to score goals and points, the assessments may have to change. With limited salary cap space the options for major shakeups will be limited, which is fine. The Penguins aren't in identical situations as they were this time last season.
The more intriguing question will be whether or not Pens management will be as bold as they were last season, would they consider slotting Kunitz full-time in a 3rd line role (leaving the very productive Conor Sheary and Guentzel as top-6 Crosby/Malkin wingers)? Would they actually relegate Hagelin to the 4th line, in that scenario, leaving Wilson as a 13th forward or candidate to move to 4th line RW?
Or will the team bet that the veterans they have can and hopefully eventually will increase their outputs? Other than Sheary, it hasn't been a great first-half of the season for Pittsburgh's left wingers, but a strong second-half and playoffs will leave this as a minor footnote on the season.
It will be interesting how Sullivan and Rutherford manage the situation and if they feel compelled to shuffle roles somewhat boldly once again. Doing it last year certainly worked out, and making decisive action could again improve the team.