The past 24 hours in Pittsburgh Penguins land has left me a little rattled.
Mainly because it is making me question everything I think I know about this dumb game.
Ever since the Penguins’ 2018-19 season ended with a whimper at the hands of the New York Islanders, I have immersed myself in a binge of articles (some are good!), sports talk (all of it regretful!), and discussions (some are entertaining!) to hear the various theories as to not only what went wrong with this team, but also why it went wrong.
There were also the words from the team itself.
Here is what I have heard.
- This was, apparently, the best defense the Penguins have assembled since Jim Rutherford has been the team’s general manager. This defense. The one with Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Marcus Pettersson, and the rest of the gang that spent the season bleeding shots and chances against and couldn’t handle the forecheck of the New York Islanders. Not one of the two Stanley Cup winning defenses ... this one.
- The Penguins do not need to do anything to address their declining speed, particularly on the aforementioned blue line that is, apparently, the best one Jim Rutherford has seen assembled in Pittsburgh.
- A team that saw eight different players acquired, and then dumped within a calendar year of being acquired, never really came together as a team (No kidding?).
- For an incredible 11th year in a row John Buccigross suggested that the Penguins will or should trade Evgeni Malkin.
- Kris Letang needs to change the same game he has played for 12 years that has allowed him to become one of the 10 best in the world at what he does, and hell, maybe they need to trade him.
- Phil Kessel has probably played his last game as a Penguin, even though it is almost universally agreed that he was their best forward in the playoffs and has had his two most productive seasons in the NHL over the past two years.
None of this makes any sense to me and let me tell you, friends, after all of this I think I am the one that is out of touch. I have to be, right? Because how can any and all of this be possible?
I simply do not have the energy to get into Jim Rutherford’s comments on the defense because ... my goodness, I don’t think I can get through it without laughing or throwing my computer across the damn room ... but I do want to touch on the idea of trading a member of the core part of the roster, specifically Letang or Kessel.
Let me start with this: Do not do it.
Do not do it because you are almost certainly going to lose the trade. There are not many teams in the Penguins’ position (a championship contender — which they still are, I think) that have traded a player of that skill level and ended up getting better because of it. Hell, there are not many teams in that position that have even attempted to make such a trade, which should tell you something about how insane the idea is.
Do not do it because it will be an outrageous and drastic overreaction to a bad postseason, and in Letang’s case, an outrageous and drastic overreaction to a couple of mistakes.
I find the idea that reducing the risk in Letang’s game will automatically cut down on mistakes to be, in a word, odd, because that is not how any of this works.
Mistakes happen. Hockey is literally a game of mistakes, and when the puck ends up in the back of the net it is almost always because somebody, somewhere, made a mistake. Jack Johnson, Brian Dumoulin, and Olli Maatta are the most risk averse players on the Penguins’ blue line and ALL OF THEM made glaring, egregious, horrible mistakes that led to goals against in the playoffs, and not one person ran up to them after the season and asked if they should change the way they play.
(It might help if they did change.)
Hell, the neutral zone pinch Justin Schultz made in Game 3 was probably worse than anything Letang (or any other defender ... or any other player) did in the entire series. Yet it seems to only be a footnote on the never-ending crapfest that was the Penguins’ play throughout the four games.
It was a collective team effort to put the Penguins in the position they are now in. It wasn’t just because Kris Letang tried to go one-on-three in overtime of Game 1. That just one part of it. As was Brian Dumoulin’s play in regulation. And Olli Maatta’s play in regulation. And so on.
At this point I am used to fighting against trading Letang because I have been doing it for seven years with people in this city.
The Kessel thing is just ... strange.
Where are you going to get another point-per-game winger that plays the way he does in the playoffs for $6.8 million? Here is the answer: You are not. And if what I’m hearing is to be believed that he doesn’t have a lot of trade value (???) then why? I know Kessel has his flaws as a player, but the guy flat out brings it when it matters most and you are not going to replace that production.
The whole argument around trading him at this point seems to amount to, “yeah, he’s really productive and he was great in the playoffs but, hell, ya gotta trade someone!”
That is not why you trade players.
As maddening as these discussions are to me, they are not a surprise. This is what happens when a team not only loses, but loses far earlier than expected.
There is also legitimate reason to wonder about the long-term outlook of the team, especially as Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Kessel continue to climb into their 30s. They will not be great forever, and when they are not, the team is probably doomed to a lengthy rebuild. But that is going to happen no matter what you do this summer or next summer. That is inevitable. There is not a trade or series of trades you are going to make today involving any of these players (or any player) that is going to put that off or delay it or stop it from happening. Your best best is to try to hang one more banner in the rafters while you still have the chance with these superstars.
You probably will not do that by trading any of them right now.
Before you come at me in response and say, “WELL HOW DO YOU MAKE THE TEAM BETTER IN THIS SITUATION?”
Let me just remind you of this: The Pittsburgh Penguins were in a significantly worse situation at the end of the 2014-15 season. The team had just lost in five games to the New York Rangers in Round 1 and looked completely punchless in doing so. The roster, outside of the top four or five players, completely stunk. The salary cap situation was so bad that the team could not even put a full roster on the ice at one point during the stretch run of the regular season due to injuries and a lack of cap space to make a simple AHL call-up, and the head coach was so dull and boring that he made everyone hate hockey. Oh, and the team needed to beat the Buffalo Sabres on the last day of the regular season just to get in the playoffs.
How did the Penguins respond that offseason? By trading a core player? Trading a star?
No. They added a star (Kessel). Then they re-worked the depth over the next few months by trading the likes of Brandon Sutter, David Perron, and Rob Scuderi.
Maybe you won’t get lucky enough to trade Jack Johnson for someone competent (not that the general manager will ever consider trading him), but you don’t need to do something dumb.
You do not need to rebuild the foundation of your house to fix the broken dishwasher.
Yes, your team lost. No, it did not look good in doing so. Yes, there are many flaws and problems. Overreacting to them and doing something irreversibly dumb is not the solution.
That is why the most rational and sensible thing Rutherford said on Thursday was that he needed to take a few days to think things through because everyone is still a little emotional about the defeat.
Maybe once that happens saner heads will prevail and they will realize that this defense is not good, and the solution is to not trade one or two of the maybe eight or nine players that allowed this team to at least go as far as it did this season.