Over the past 14 or so years I have attended a lot of Pittsburgh Penguins games.
As a credentialed member of the media. In the stands. The number is well into the hundreds. In all of those games I can honestly — and very definitively — say I have never felt a vibe in either the old building or the new building that matched the vibe that oozed out of the stands during Thursday’s 7-2 embarrassment at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers.
It was .... something.
On Thursday I was in the stands (with Hooks, actually!) and from the moment you walked into the seating bowl there was a weird vibe in the number of people — particularly young kids — in Edmonton Oilers jerseys that were crowded around the glass for their warmups to catch an up close glimpse of Connor McDavid. This is probably what it has felt like for years in other buildings when Sidney Crosby and the Penguins rolled into town and how it became an event to see the traveling show. That is not something you typically see happen here.
McDavid, to his credit, did not disappoint any of them. He put on A SHOW, scoring two goals and setting up two more with each play becoming increasingly more impressive.
But what really stood out about the vibe on Thursday was the seething anger that seemed to be bubbling over from the fans.
When the score got to 5-1, the “Fire Hextall” chants started.
When IceBurgh attempted to get out in front of it and start honking his horn to hopefully inspire a “Let’s Go Pens” chant, the fans simply changed the cadence to have the “Fire Hextall” follow the horn.
Then the horn stopped.
The Penguins were booed off the ice after the second period.
How many times have you heard Penguins fans chant for anybody to be fired? As Josh Yohe pointed out in his post-game wrap-up at the Athletic, the fans have never really turned on anybody in the arena or voiced their displeasure in such a way.
Even more amazing, when McDavid was tripped on a breakaway late in the third period there seemed to be a sudden rush of excitement where the fans wanted to see him get the penalty shot. The anticipation when he set up for the shot, when he started his rush, and when he absolutely smoked Casey DeSmith there were cheers for a world class player doing world class things. When have you ever heard THAT in Pittsburgh for an opposing player?
Those are the sort of things you get when your team feels hopeless.
That might be the best word to use for the 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins.
It just feels .... bleak.
The vibes are not good.
The thing of it is, the Penguins are still very much in the playoff race this season, and I am not even prepared to say that the inevitable end of the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era has arrived and that next season will be a disaster or that they need to start selling off pieces and starting the rebuild.
It is just that THIS particularly team in THIS particular season seems like a hopeless situation.
The roster? Badly flawed with glaring weaknesses all over it and at least 10 or 11 players that are simply passengers for how far the top-six can take them.
The coach? He has limited options for what he can work with and does not seem able to maximize what he does have control over.
The general manager? Well. I think he watches the team? But even if he does, what is his vision?
The direction of hockey operations, Brian Burke? What exactly does he even DO here?
The ownership? Completely absent.
This is all foreign territory for Penguins fans, and completely unheard of for an entire generation of the team’s fanbase.
For the past 16 years the Penguins have been, in totality, the most successful franchise in the sport. The playoffs every year. More regular season and playoff wins than any team in the league during that stretch. More Stanley Cup Final appearances (four) than any team and tied for the most Stanley Cup championships (three) during that time. A consistent run of some of the league’s best players and a couple of legends.
Even in those handful of down years in between the Mario Lemieux/Jaromir Jagr era and the start of the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era there was at least a plan and a vision for hope (on the ice at least; the long-term stability of the franchise was still in doubt, which is another entirely different feeling of hopelessness). The team was gutting its roster, preparing for a salary cap league, building for the future, with the promise of high draft picks ahead.
But this season?
This is a badly flawed roster that is trending in the wrong direction that is either going to miss the playoffs entirely, which would be a massive disappointment, or sneak in only to be a massive underdog to a Boston or Carolina team that has badly outplayed them in their head-to-head meetings this season, with a general manager that does not seem to have a vision or a plan.
The only thing that might change that feeling of hopelessness is a fresh start after this season with a different management team that can do a better job building something around what is left of the careers of some of the franchise’s best all-time players.
It can be done. Hope can be restored. But right now this is about as bleak as things have felt for the Penguins in over 20 years.