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The Penguins will need a better output from supporting players to right the ship

It hasn’t been pretty for the non-star players on the Pittsburgh Penguins so far in 2018-19

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Penguins bottom six has been a real issue. They haven’t scored in forever, seemingly. Just look at these indefensibly bad numbers, which no one is immune from:

  • Bryan Rust has just one goal (and three assists) in 17 games. Not what you want to pay $3.5 million for, which was what he got extended at over the summer.
  • Riley Sheahan has one goal (and one assist) and nothing in 15 games. The Pens paid a $2.1 million premium hoping he could get back to his 11g+21a from last year (in just 71 games in Pittsburgh). So far, not so good.
  • Derek Grant was called an “NHL player” by GM Jim Rutherford over the summer. Hasn’t looked it, going 0 goals and 0 assists in seven NHL games and getting sent to the AHL twice already this season.
  • Zach Aston-Reese had an underwhelming training camp (perhaps to be expected coming off a broken jaw in May) and was sent to the minors. He got called up and has 0 points in four games in the NHL, failing to score on a glorious breakaway against Tampa last time out.
  • Garrett Wilson has no points in 38 career NHL games. Is he supposed to magically start adding tangible contributions? I think not. Thursday night he also took an avoidable offensive zone penalty on a night his PK was 0/3 at preventing goals. To the surprise of no one, that turned into 0/4 as Tampa scored what held up as the game-winning goal with Wilson in the box.

And then there’s Matt Cullen, who also took a dumb penalty last game (while the team was down two men, no less) has looked every day of being 42-years old. Gretz touched upon this yesterday in his column for us. Couldn’t help but agree with every word:

He has three points in 17 games. His possession numbers are not only — by far — the worst on the team, they are among the worst in the entire NHL. He has not made a single, tangible contribution on the ice all season. And in the one situation where you expect a trusted, smart veteran to make smart, trustworthy plays he took the type of penalty that would get a younger player glued to the bench for the rest of the night. Yet he did not miss a shift the rest of the way.

Given the way he played in Minnesota this past season — spoiler: it was not good — and the fact he is one year older into his 40s this should not be a surprise.

He had a fantastic career. He was a key player during a great chapter in Penguins history.

But just like Carl Hagelin sometimes you just have to say thanks for the memories and move in a different direction.

Coach Mike Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford have been nothing but loyal and supportive of Cullen and are no doubt big believers in him.

But what this brings to mind is another veteran, aged 4th line center who signed back for a second tour of duty this summer in a spot. That would be Tomas Plekanec in Montreal. He wasn’t cutting it and there was no room for sentimentality, as Plekanec was waived and sent packing last week.

Plekanec has been a longtime fan favourite in Montreal and recently played his 1000th NHL game. He was traded at the trade deadline last season to the Toronto Maple Leafs in return for Rinat Valiev, forward Kerby Rychel and a 2018 second-round draft pick (a pick that was used to pick Jacob Olofsson). Olofsson is the only player who remains in the organization as Valiev and Rychel were traded.

Plekanec played three games for the Canadiens this season, scoring one goal. In 1001 career NHL games, he has 233 goals and 375 assists. He also played 94 playoff games with 18 goals and 35 assists.

When do the Pens have to make the realization with Cullen? No one from the team has come close to voicing any concern, so it seems the issue will linger a while longer. And Cullen - to his credit - played better in the second half of 2017-18 with Minnesota scoring 6 goals in the last few months of the season after a dreadful start. But when will that kick in? One would hope with Sidney Crosby and Derick Brassard injured, Cullen would step up and offer something when he might be needed most right now. Like the rest of the bottom six, he failed.

NHL teams usually do well when their lower lines are contributing and offering some production. The Penguins haven’t gotten anything close to that kind of offensive output out of their supporting players. And they’ve been hemorrhaging goals against and as mentioned above taking trips to the penalty box.

It all adds up to too much for the skill players to overcome, especially with a weak team defense and inconsistent goaltending.

As this season comes into focus Pittsburgh has to take some long looks in the mirror. Carl Hagelin wasn’t scoring despite playing with Evgeni Malkin and got shipped out. At this rate, if performances don’t improve, he won’t and shouldn’t be the only one.

Every game is a new chance though and the Pens are in Ottawa tonight and have another opportunity to right the ship while it’s still early in the season. Whether or not they can will depend on players finally getting their act together and starting to contribute as they were intended to over the off-season.