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The Week(s) Ahead: Penguins season reaches its crossroads

How is Ron Hextall going to handle this?

2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

There are two really crappy things about the Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night.

The first thing is that it actually happened.

The Sharks are one of the league’s worst teams and played the night before on the road (in overtime!), all while the Penguins were sitting at home rested and presumably ready to go. The Sharks past three road wins over the past two months: At Montreal, at Anaheim and at Chicago. Three of the worst teams in the league.

As far as “should win” games are concerned, that is incredibly high on the list. Especially when you are in a fight for a playoff spot. You better win that hockey game.

The Penguins did not win despite generating 41 shots on goal and scoring four goals.

The second crappy thing about that result is that we now have more than a week to sit and talk about it and the predicament it helps put the Penguins in with the standings.

On one hand, the Penguins are still in a playoff position (barely) with a slightly more comfortable points percentage lead.

They enter the bye week and All-Star break on a 95-point pace, which is typically where the break line is for the playoffs. They have games in hand on pretty much everybody they are competing with. Just looking at the other Wild Card contenders and their current pace the Penguins still have a small cushion.

Buffalo is on a 93-point pace.

Washington is on a 91-point pace.

The New York Islanders are on an 86-point pace.

The Detroit Red Wings are on an 85-point pace.

The Florida Panthers are on an 85-point pace.

It is not exactly a comfortable position, but it could be a lot worse. There is a cushion.

They have also pretty much maintained their current point pace over the past few weeks, going 5-3-3 into the break which comes out to a .590 points percentage (a 96-point pace over 82 games).

But one thing is very clear right now, and that is the fact the Penguins are a very flawed team and general manager Ron Hextall has a month to figure out how to handle fixing that.

No matter what you think of this team is at is currently constructed, the plan should continue to be focussed on making the playoffs and trying to compete. That is the only logical direction based on everything they have done over the past year. Being a seller should not be an option no matter how much they are teetering on the edge of a playoff spot. They committed to this core and seeing what else they have left, and for at least the time being they should see that through.

Clutching on to the first-round pick and hoping it can help the long-term outlook would be foolish, because it almost certainly has more value to them as a trade asset this year than it does as a long-term building block. That pick is probably going to be in the second half of the first round (17-32), and the odds of finding a franchise player with a pick in that range is probably less than 10 percent. The odds of finding an NHL regular is probably around 50 percent. If you can use that pick as the foundation of a trade to add a potential impact player for this year and/or next year, you have to part with it and you should not think twice about it. No one player picked in that range will significantly altar the post-Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Kris Letang rebuild.

Make the playoffs while you can and see what happens when you get there.

As flawed as this team is right now, I still do believe this is a playoff team (and a pretty good one) when it is healthy. The top two lines are great. They have a good starting goalie when he is healthy. I think they have some potential bottom-six pieces in place, but need something in the middle of the third line to bring it all together.

Which gets us into the needs and questions to address over the next month.

As crazy as it might be suggest, is Mike Sullivan still the coach to get the most out of this roster? My strong instinct is yes, because he IS a good coach, and when you have a good coach you do not want to get rid of them. But every coach in the NHL has a shelf life, and Sullivan has remained in Pittsburgh longer than most coaches stick with one team. When teams need a mid-season spark, that is the first place teams tend to go because you can not fire all of the players or change the entire roster.

But my long-standing belief is that if you are talking about firing your coach, you probably need to also take a long look at the people that actually constructed the roster. Because they are usually the people responsible for the situation.

Making a front office change mid-season, especially for this team at this point in the season, would not make any sense. So it is going to be up to Hextall to fix the mess he helped create around the edges of the roster.

A third-line center, or at least somebody that can help change the direction of the third line, needs to be at the top of the list.

Maybe some additional depth on defense to help solidify a team that has been trending the wrong way defensively in recent weeks (though, I do think better forwards in the bottom six can also help this).

Goaltending depth should absolutely be on the shopping list because we simply do not know if Tristan Jarry will be healthy, and I do not know how anybody can trust Casey DeSmith to play for an extended period of time if he is needed. He is proving right now he can not be counted on to be a regular starter.

That remains my biggest criticism of Hextall and Co. in the front office. For one reason or another goaltending keeps failing the Penguins in crunch time, and they keep bringing back the same duo. It does not even need to be a rental option. If you can secure somebody that can be a potential starting option, or even a platoon option with a re-signed Jarry, for next season it should be on the table because this current alignment is one of the biggest Achilles Heel’s on this roster.

This is a good week for everybody (front office, coaches, players) to take a step back and evaluate everything and whether or not they have the right pieces and people in place, and if not, to seriously start taking action to find the right pieces and people.

Coming out of the All-Star break the Penguins have a brutal matchup against the Colorado Avalanche and then go out west for another West Coast road trip against Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose before returning back east for a potentially huge game against the New York Islanders.

Those are important points for the playoff race. That stretch could really set the tone for the stretch run of the regular season.