It’s early yet, but that doesn’t mean the Kyle Dubas and the Penguins can’t ignore the developing trends of this season. Sitting at 2-4-0 with three straight losses with a visit upcoming from the mighty 6-0-0 Colorado Avalanche on the horizon tomorrow, Dubas is already being confronted with tough questions. Every team has to deal with some form of adversity somewhere during a NHL season, but this has to be way earlier than Dubas wanted and expected to have to address them.
Losing a few games was bound to happen — and most had the Penguins as a third, fourth or fifth place team in the division alone and likely competing for a Wild Card spot. Guess what, those teams lose their fair share of games. But they shouldn’t be going down like they have been lately for the Penguins.
Pens have now allowed 4 unanswered goals in 3 of their 4 losses (unless there’s a miracle). Allowed 3 unanswered in the other.— Bob Grove (@bobgrove91) October 25, 2023
If the Pens feel they’re losing their margin for error already — and as they learned last season, the margins down at the Wild Card level are very thin indeed — Dubas is going to have to take more steps to change the squad before it becomes too late. He hasn’t been inactive, making an early-season swap of Jansen Harkins to the minors and bringing up Radim Zohorna has shown. But that hasn’t been nearly enough to fix the troubles that are mounting.
Unfortunately for Dubas, many of the troubles are ones he has either leaned into or not addressed. Let’s look at such issues and how the options that Dubas will have to weigh, if not now then possibly in the very near future to get the Pens out of an early season funk.
Partially by Dubas’ own making by signing players like Lars Eller and Noel Acciari, the Pens are old and at times looking every bit of being the NHL’s oldest team.
Also I see all the "penguins are some old" takes, you're right, they are old.— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) October 25, 2023
(fyi peak age for most skills is around 23/24/25) pic.twitter.com/uZ0DcfUV6v
Dubas inherited Jeff Carter to stay on the roster due to his contractual no movement clause, but that doesn’t mean Carter has to stay in the playing lineup every night. Well, he does have to stay in the lineup every game when Dubas only stocks team team to carry the bare minimum of 12 forwards, which is an easily solvable problem that they are choosing to ignore so far.
Dropping Carter to the side as an extra forward and bringing a new player up is a simple way to change the mix of the bottom-six. It automatically makes the team younger, faster and more capable at the tenets of lower line hockey — energy, forechecking, all the elements that Carter doesn’t offer.
It’s a beyond a confounding issue, because Jeff Carter having nothing in the tank has been evident for some time, yet he’s remained in the lineup anyways. To be clear, Carter in the limited role that he currently is playing, is far from the only problem. But it’s also as clear that he also isn’t going to be a part of the solution either. That means he’s only getting in the way at best, and at worst he’s a bad player that weighs the team down. Taking him out of the lineup is an easy addition by subtraction and well overdue.
Matt Nieto, a soon-to-be 31-year old cast in a young man’s role of a lower line player, hasn’t made a positive impact as hoped. Rem Pitlick is down in the minors, he’s a 26-year old who in the last two seasons has some serious NHL production, in the way of 21 goals and 31 assists. That’s the type of results the Pens need and don’t have on their roster.
Dropping Nieto for Pitlick would work on the cap math, make the Pens younger and give them more of a pulse offensively. It’s not a lever that Dubas absolutely has to pull immediately, but something like it should be strongly considered given one of the Pens’ many weaknesses is invisible bottom-six play.
The same thought process applies as far as Acciari to this point. Who out there is would both to claim Acciari with a robust cap hit and 2.9 seasons to go for an aging, fourth liner? No one. The salary cap can’t be an excuse for Dubas when Dubas is the manager who made the cap crunch by signing expensive luxuries like Acciari, Eller and (to a degree) Nieto. The Pens don’t have a ton of youth in Wilkes-Barre like it’s 2015, but they do have options with the depth Dubas has built.
After the sixth game of the season it might not be the time to be so desperate to cut established NHLers, but the Pens are showing signs of a team that needs multiple new, fresh faces already. Most of Dubas’ ideas to fix the team haven’t paid off, just how patient he chooses to be as the season fails to launch will be a huge key to the goals that were stated by Dubas.
When Jim Rutherford succeeded in Pittsburgh, it wasn’t because he failed to make mistakes, but rather that he took decisive steps to clean up and correct the problems he created. If things continue as they’ve been, it’s not to tough to see players like Eller, Nieto and Acciari developing into not quite the needle-movers that Dubas hoped or expected when he signed them. If and when that comes into focus, how and will Dubas be able to pivot as effectively as Rutherford?
Power play answers
The Penguins’ power play is 2-for-16 to start the year. Both of those goals came in the same game against Washington. The Pens’ personnel is there, the chances are there, the goals are not, the shooting ability is not. Whether it’s a coaching or strategy change (which doesn’t necessarily mean physically changing any coaches) or continuing to tweak the alignments, something has to give from the inputs of how the team is attempting to go about their business.
This is the easiest area to harp on, because nothing is necessarily wrong. Whether it’s more traffic in front, changing the look, changing the strategy, more shots, keep it simple, any suggestion is probably a good one. Regardless of what happens, the power play is a touch point for the success of the season.
It shouldn’t be a shock that when the Pens don’t get results in the form of a PPG, their record is terrible (1-4-0). This area isn’t one that’s on the general manager, but is undoubtedly something that should concern and have his attention for all those synergistic meetings with Mike Sullivan to address at some level and drive results.
Defensive mess and trades
Pittsburgh hasn’t figured out their bottom pair defense, and it has cost them dearly in the form of goals against during each of the last three games. A needless reminder that all three games have been losses. It’s one thing to experiment early in the season with some lineup decisions, it’s another thing to see it keep blowing up, cost the team games and remain at square one with nothing to show for it.
The recent stint of P.O. Joseph as a healthy scratch for two games stands out as an opportunity to bring change in one way or another. Joseph’s current status can’t continue indefinitely, he either needs to be placed back in the lineup where he can contribute or used as one of the few trade chips the team might have to find a change of scenery with another young player out there somewhere who could help the Penguins. (Maybe the 2023 version of a Sprong-for-Pettersson type of trade).
It’s difficult to make trades in the current NHL climate where the salary cap is tight, but it’s not tighter anywhere than it was in Toronto and Dubas made eight trades during last season that brought in six new NHL caliber players to his team.
There are still 76 games to go, which probably needs to be repeated on a day like this, but the bigger issues for the Penguins are just how and why they are losing these games. For the most part, they are not getting blown off the ice, just failing in key moments.
Staring down the strong possibility of five losses in the first seven games, Dubas wouldn’t have expected to have such tough decisions that need to be confronted within the first few weeks of the season. And yet here we are. All eyes will be on how much time he lets this go, what he changes are attempted and how soon he might use waivers, Wilkes-Barre and trades to attempt to get this season off the ground before it becomes too late.