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The play-in showed the Penguins’ weaknesses, now they need to fix them to re-open window

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The Pens need a kick-start to get back to winning ways

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

Reality came crashing down on the Pittsburgh Penguins last night, when the 1-in-8 chance to get the first overall pick ended up being the 7-in-8 higher chance of not getting the top pick. It was a fitting end to a disappointing 2019-20 season.

You probably don’t need a reminder, but ever since being at the top of the mountain for the NHL’s only back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era in 2016 and 2017, it’s been nothing but a sharp downhill descent for the Pens. There was a second round loss to Washington in 2016 in a close, hard-fought series. Then an embarrassing first round sweep to a New York Islanders team that got swept themselves in the next round in 2019. Followed by a further step back by losing to a lowly Montreal team in the qualification round in 2020.

When asked about the Pens’ window closing, Sidney Crosby had to be honest last week:

“With age, it’s a possibility,” said Crosby, who turned 33 on Friday. “But I can only speak personally. Obviously, I would’ve liked to stay a little bit healthier and play a full season.”

To be sure, Crosby is correct that injuries remain the biggest worry as he, Evgeni Malkin (34) and Kris Letang (33) continue to age into their golden playing years. Crosby missed a week in July’s training camp with what was believed to be discomfort and pain in his groin/abdomen area that was surgically repaired last November.

However, this month’s stunning loss to the Canadiens wasn’t caused by a star group of players too old to play. Malkin scored 74 points in 55 games this regular season, leading the league in 5v5 points/60 minutes. Crosby pushed through whatever was ailing him to be the best skater on the ice in the early series games.

While you can point to many factors that doomed the Pens, they have plenty more pressing issue than worrying about the age of their stars. Besides, holding back the hands of time isn’t going to work anyway. The main issues that can be addressed are:

  • A complete revamp of the bottom of the depth chart on defense
  • Better third line forwards
  • Figuring out and correcting coaching tactical and philosophical mistakes
  • Solving third line center role

Defense

Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz killed the Pens’ with their shoddy play. Statement of fact there. The good news is Schutlz is a free agent and will be a goner. Half the problem is solved. The conundrum of how to move on from Johnson will play out in the fall. Can the Pens buy him out and eat six years of pain? Find a trade like they tried to last summer? Regardless of the mechanics of “how” the more important point is doing it.

But then, the decisions on who to bring in loom large. From Matt Hunwick to Jamie Oleksiak to Johnson and Erik Gudrbanson, the Pens haven’t evaluated depth defensemen very smartly in recent years.

Youngster Pierre-Olivier Joseph might be ready for a bigger look, but then again at age-21 with only 52 AHL games under his belt of professional experience, he might not be ready for full-time NHL duty. Chad Ruhwedel has been serviceable depth and will be a nice piece to have on hand.

But the Pens will have to be smart and need to find one, if not two, new defensemen via the trade or free agency route who are A) not expensive in salary and acquisition cost and B) not complete liabilities on the ice. Not an easy task, but a necessary one to fire Jack Johnson into the sun and find a way to improve the team.

Third line forwards

This will be an interesting venue to watch. Does Nick Bjugstad get the chance to come back? Dominik Simon, remember him? Can Teddy Blueger grow into a bigger role? What about a Conor Sheary or Evan Rodrigues? Another crack at it for Jared McCann? Someone new all together? The Pens’ third line forward group ended up almost as big of a mess as their third pair defense. It needs re-worked and re-imagined. That likely means changes somewhere along the line with new faces.

Coaching mistakes

It was a terrible sign that Mike Sullivan couldn’t get any kind of effort or honest performance out of the Pens in their Game 4 elimination game where they showed absolutely no passion or intensity on the ice. Also feels a little odd that the GM who never turns down an interview has gone very quiet since the team got kicked out. That’s easier to do without having to face the media in a traditional “breakdown day” in this virus world, but you have to be wondering just what is going through the GM’s mind.

Mark Recchi is a hall of famer and a franchise icon, and I’m not one to dismiss that, but it’s a wonder what his future is or just how good of a match his personality and demeanor is to be a professional coach. The power play struggled mightily and had no answers. The Pens’ forwards also didn’t play as engaged as the NYI forwards did last year or the MTL ones did this year. Why is that? How is it going to be fixed?

Third line center role

The job of playing behind Crosby+Malkin is a very important one. It’s unglamorous with lots of defensive zone starts that’s been known to sink the performance and/or wills of players to even have the job (Brandon Sutter, Derrick Brassard). Others have thrived (Nick Bonino, Jordan Staal, though I guess he fits in the first category too since he wanted a bigger and more offensive role).

McCann was a swing and a miss as a third line center this year. Bjugstad didn’t stay available long enough to know. The Pens haven’t had this spot figured out since Bonino skated out the door in 2017. There’s a big correlation to the 3C spot floundering in the past few seasons and the team in general taking a tailspin.

Pittsburgh won’t have much money to fix it. They lost Bonino because they couldn’t afford to win a bidding war that would have cost at least $4.1 million (and probably more) to keep him. They still can’t spend a lot.

Lucky for them, a cheap option is already there. Blueger signed at $750k could be the answer, leaving the Pens to just need and add a fourth line center (where Rodrigues could slide in, if they stayed internal). Blueger at 22 points in 69 games isn’t THAT far off Bonino’s regular seasons, where he has scored between 29-35 points the last four seasons.

Blueger would have to improve his 1.02 P/60 in 2019-20, but playing with more offensive linemates could help there. Overall Blueger’s 15G+17A in 97 games shows he can be better than a fourth liner. Is he capable of picking up where Staal and Bonino left off? That is a question the team will have to answer, but given options it might be the best realistic hope.