During a long losing streak, when a team expected to get results isn’t finding ways to win, tempers always start to flare. The blame game becomes prominent to explain who is at fault for the losses.
The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have many immune from criticism after their current 0-5-1 stretch of play that will see them go at least two weeks without a win. It’s not an unprecedented place to be: just last year’s Pens team started 5-6-4 and was far out of the mix before turning on the jets over the next 25-30 games. Can this year’s team do the same? It remains to be seen, though the talent is still there.
One big standout over the first 11 games of the season, and especially in now the last six game sample that makes up over half of the season-to-date is some makeup problems of the team that can be traced back to decisions made during the summer or previously by general manager Ron Hextall.
Not all of Hextall’s choices have been bad - he brought back Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell and those players have been productive and played well. Sometimes the best moves are the ones you DON’T make, and that’s been the case for Pittsburgh too, who stuck by Jason Zucker, did not pay an asset to off-load his salary cap hit and have been rewarded by eight points in nine games so far.
Those decisions aside, it’s looking like Hextall has missed so far more than he’s hit.
- Brian Dumoulin - The mission of the Pens’ off-season was remaking the defense. Mike Matheson and John Marino were out. They stuck by Dumoulin, despite signs almost everyone could see that he might be starting on the down-swing after a couple of injury-filled and shaky seasons. Turns out that looks correct that Dumoulin was a player the team should have been more intent on dropping. But the Pens bet on Dumoulin by keeping him, and that looks like a bad call. It might have been a decision made with the best of intentions that a now-healthy Dumoulin would be able to play back up to a high level, but it doesn’t look like that is going to be the case.
- Jeff Petry - It’s only been a handful of games, so Petry could well settle in and improve his level of play over the course of the season as the veteran acclimates to his new team. The Pens better hope this is the case, as his performance hasn’t been up to standards so far. Meanwhile, the player he replaced in the lineup is having a wonderful start in New Jersey.
- Kasperi Kapanen - It made no sense at the time when the Pens sent Kasperi Kapanen a qualifying offer this summer, thereby locking him into a relatively high salary. After 11 games, it still hasn’t paid off. Kapanen has one goal on the season — scored at the end of a blowout win on opening night against Arizona — and has scored now just five goals in the last 67 games he has played (playoffs and regular season). His playmaking was noticeable and helping in the first few games of the season, but since has disappeared. Hextall and the Pens keep betting on Kapanen, and Kapanen almost never has rewarded their faith by playing well.
- Brock McGinn - It wasn’t a move from this summer, but McGinn was Hextall’s first major free agent signing and has been unimpressive. He carries a big cap hit for this season and two more and is a continual display of roster inefficiency.
- Jeff Carter - Carter’s Game Score of 0.35 per game is only ahead of Kapanen and Dumoulin so far this season. He also did what old guys usually do, get hurt. Hextall was overly loyal with a two-year contract extension for Carter, and a full no movement clause that keeps him under contract through 2023-24. It looks like a needlessly lengthy bet on an aging player who has been slowing down.
In fact, if you look at the lowest performing average players by Game Score, it’s basically a who’s who of players that Hextall has either endorsed, signed or re-signed in the last year:
Some of those players are fourth liners/third pair and somebody HAS to be at the bottom of contributions list on the team, so it’s not a big deal that names like Ryan Poehling, Josh Archibald and P.O Joseph appear here. That said, when a team pays a premium for players like Kapanen, Carter and McGinn, a return on that investment would be nice and has not happened so far.
The Penguins have a long time to turn their season around, and from a different perspective there could be some positives to take away. They have been taking leads in a lot of games, showing they still have the ability to play well and compete, they just need to finish. The star players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel) are all scoring at or above a point-per-game and doing their parts.
The penalty kill has been awful, but should be helped when Teddy Blueger returns to the lineup. The goaltending has hit a bit of cold patch (though they haven’t had much help from the defense) but that also figures to eventually to improve as well.
Losing streaks by their very nature are going to make just about any and every aspect of a team get exposed, perhaps in five games time coach Mike Sullivan will figure out how to shield Dumoulin a bit more and that alone could greatly improve the fortune of the team, and should also help raise the game of Kris Letang to simply getaway from Dumoulin at this point.
However, early in the year, a lot of the bets that the manager has made in the construction of the Pens in important places like his third line and second pair defense have not yet paid off. If the team is to turn around, they are going to need to figure out how to drive improvements from those areas first. If they don’t figure it out quickly, the difficult questions should begin by looking into the management team that chose these pieces and put them together.