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Now the tough questions begin for Penguins

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Specifically, where did it go wrong and who returns next season?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that certainly didn’t go as planned.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2018-19 season came to a disappointing thud of an end on Tuesday night as they watched the New York Islanders celebrate a clear four-game sweep on the PPG Paints Arena ice. It is the first time since 2015 the Penguins have gone out in the first round — an impressive run — and the first time they have been swept since the 2013 Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins.

Now, the questions begin.

The questions as to where this postseason failure falls among past postseason failures.

Make no mistake, this was a failure in a lot of ways. The Penguins’ reputation wasn’t at stake this postseason in quite the same way, say, Tampa Bay’s was, and getting swept out of the first round will just be a footnote on the careers of a core that has put three banners in the rafters. It’s not something that will define them. But anytime a team with this core not only goes out this early, but also does not win a single playoff game, it is a failure of some degree.

(For what it is worth, for me, this series is a distant second behind the 2012 Flyers series. That Penguins team was good enough to win the Stanley Cup and totally embarrassed itself; this team was an inconsistent, up and down team with serious flaws that just so happened to play to its floor at the worst possible time.)

The questions as to where it all went wrong.

It was not just any one thing, either. When you lose four games in a row, manage only six goals in the series, only three in the final three games, and hold the lead for only five minutes in a series it is never just any one thing. It is a lot of things, all working together to put you in that position.

It was a defense that has lost mobility and puck movement skills, and a complete lack of awareness from the two players on the blue line that can do those things. It is a forward group that is flawed around the edges. And yes, it was also a sign that maybe, just maybe, the core is getting older.

The questions about who returns, and who does not.

When it comes to the former, I am 99.9 percent confident the big four (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray) will all be back.

After that?

It’s anybody’s guess. Not only because Jim Rutherford has a knack for shuffling his roster, even in the best of times, but because postseason failure like this leads to changes. And changes are needed in a lot of areas to fix the flaws.

Phil Kessel will be the most popular name bandied about in trade speculation because, well, he just always is, and he is the logical player out of the “core” to be traded if you decide to go for a massive change. But that still seems ... risky. You are not going to get equal value back, and he can still be a difference-maker even if he had some issues in the second half.

The defense needs overhauled, but everyone — EVERYONE! — is still under contract for this upcoming season, and in many cases, seasons beyond.

They have to decide if Patric Hornqvist’s horrendous second half was the result of his latest concussion, or if his career has simply fallen off of a cliff. Neither possibility is good, and for very different reasons.

Finally, there is the philosophical question: Did the Penguins stray too far away from what made them a success in 2016 and 2017, and if so, how can they get back to that? Let’s be honest, this team looked slow at times, and especially in the playoffs against the Islanders. They also seemed to come unglued far more easily than the “Just play” teams that were lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. There was a change in the type of player they were looking for, and they never found the right fit of complementary pieces to go around their superstars.

The Penguins are in a tough spot here with an obviously flawed roster with an aging core.

That core is still good enough to win — and win big — but the rest of the division is catching up.

The Capitals are champions and still look like they can do it again.

The Hurricanes are on the rise and built like a team with staying power, and play the way the Penguins used to.

The Blue Jackets just demolished the best team of the modern era and who knows what postseason success could mean to their pending free agents.

And the Islanders? Well, they just showed where they stand as there was nothing fluky about that result. They earned it.

There is work to be done, and that leads to the biggest question of them all: How will Jim Rutherford handle it?

We are not exactly breaking new ground here to point out that the past two years have been a roller coaster of transactions — some worked, many didn’t, players came and went at a rapid pace and in the end it not only left the Penguins exactly where they started, it probably left them a little behind. Overall, the GM has not had a great two-year run with roster construction and needs to fix that rapidly.

If he doesn’t, we might be sitting here next spring asking the same questions while the core is one year closer to the end of the line.