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Jeff Carter situation is tip of the iceberg when it comes to Penguins failures

The people running the Penguins are simply steering the ship right at the iceberg.

New Jersey Devils v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images

It is really easy to pile on Jeff Carter right now.

Not only did he make a baffling mistake at a critical moment in Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders, but his play has become symbolic of the organizational failures over the past 18 months.

In short, it has been bad, and his line has been one of the biggest weaknesses and flaws for a team that is scrambling just to be a Wild Card team and potential first-round cannon fodder for an actual Stanley Cup contender. They will be a playoff team. I almost certain of that. But it will probably not be an enjoyable playoff experience.

As true as those statements are, focussing the frustration and anger entirely in his direction is missing the problem.

Yes, he, like any player, is open to criticism for poor play. And it is very warranted.

But we are now at the point — and have been at the point — where the player is not the root cause of problem. Honestly, that is probably true for any player currently on the roster.

Carter is what he is at this point in his career, and for as much as he has struggled, I have zero doubt he is doing everything he can in the role he is being assigned.

He is former star whose peak days are long behind him, but is still being put into positions that he should not be in by people that have poorly evaluated what he currently is as a player, and continue to poorly evaluate what he is capable of as a player.

Through no fault of his own, he illustrates the failures of the Ron Hextall front office, and to a somewhat lesser degree, the shortcomings of Mike Sullivan’s current performance as the head coach.

The 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins could have been a really good team.

In fact, I would go as far as to say the 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins SHOULD be a really good team. Right now.

Perhaps even a serious contending team.

Maybe not quite a Stanley Cup winning team, but certainly a team that could have positioned itself to do some real damage in the playoffs.

You can actually see the bones of that sort of team in place, even during this recent stretch that has seen the Penguins get embarrassed a couple of times on home ice (Edmonton and New Jersey) and blow three third period leads against a team they are competing for playoff seeding with.

The core players are still great. Not only are they still great, but they are also bargains against the salary cap. As I have pointed out in this space before, the current Penguins’ roster has nobody making more than $9 million against the cap this season. It only has one player (Sidney Crosby) making more than $7 million against the cap. Of the top-105 salary cap numbers in the NHL this season, only one of them resides in Pittsburgh. One.


When you have a core as good as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel signed for under $28 million as a quartet it should be a dream position to build a contender from. Who else has that sort of an advantage with their roster? And you could make an argument they are getting strong value from some complementary players like Rickard Rakell and Jason Zucker. Adding to the advantage is that, other than some absences from Letang, that core has been healthy all season, which never happens for the Penguins.

A competent front office should have excelled with this. Not could have excelled with it. SHOULD have excelled with it.

But if you were to put together a road map for how to waste all of that and sabotage a team’s chances, Hextall and Sullivan have put together a master class for how to do it, and it is wasting one of the few remaining years you have your All-Star (and Hall of Fame) core.

The potential for what this team could have done this season is on display right now, even during this recent stretch of games.

Since the All-Star break (a stretch of 15 games) the Penguins have an expected goals share of 54.6 percent, which is the eighth-best mark in the entire league since then.

Crosby and Malkin have both tallied 17 points in those games, while Zucker and Guentzel have paced the team in goals (nine for Zucker, six for Guentzel).

The top-six has been consistently great. Stanley Cup contender great.

But the Penguins are still only 8-6-1 during that stretch, and have been handed some truly dreadful losses along the way.

Why isn’t the record matching up with the 5-on-5 numbers and the core’s contributions, both recently and for the season as a whole?

Because the bottom-six stinks, both special teams units have been a complete disaster, and they have zero consistency in goal.

All problems that seemed obvious before the start of the season and have been compounded by the front office and coaching staff.

Outside of the Rakell trade, it is not a stretch to argue that the Penguins have taken a beating in some way on almost every major roster transaction over the past year-and-a-half. The salary cap space they burned on an insane Carter extension, the Kasperi Kapanen re-signing, Jan Rutta and Brock McGinn, bringing in Dmitry Kulikov and Mikael Granlund at the trade deadline, and some of the players they needlessly parted ways with that are wildly outperforming their replacements (Evan Rodrigues, Jared McCann). Sometimes for a better price against the salary cap.

Almost all of this was known at the time. This is not a case of 20-20 hindsight. A lot of these moves were baffling and questionable the minute they happened.

Just for some quick numbers on the top-six versus bottom-six difference.

For the season the Penguins are outscoring 96-81 when one of (or both) Crosby or Malkin is on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

Since the All-Star break it is 25-18.

When neither is on the ice?

They have been outscored 39-54 for the season and 11-15 since the All-Star break.

It is literally a tale of two teams, and the latter team is the one that has largely been assembled by the current general manager with his guys.

The Penguins are not on the playoff bubble and afterthought as a Stanley Cup contender because they kept the band back together. The band is still playing the hits. They are not on the playoff bubble and an afterthought as a Stanley Cup contender because of the salary cap situation. The band is playing at a discounted rate.

The salary cap issues are self-inflicted mistakes by a general manager that had no idea what to do with any extra space he found himself with.

That is only the depth issues at 5-on-5.

The special teams are also sabotaging the season. The power play is .... well. I have no idea what to say about the power play. It is a problem and has been a problem all year. But I can live with a bad power play, especially when the team itself is still scoring goals for the most part.

What you can not live with is a bad penalty kill, and that is one of the most dramatic changes from recent years. And it has been an especially big problem lately, successfully killing off just 72.9 percent of its penalties since the All-Star break. That is 29th in the NHL. You might be shocked to learn that most of the players logging the biggest minutes per game on that unit during that stretch have been depth players acquired by Hextall, including Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta, Josh Archibald, and Brock McGinn (before he was traded).

Then we have the goalies.

For two years now the most common narrative around the Penguins’ playoff losses has been, “they dominated the series but just did not get the goaltending.”

And yet they brought back the exact same duo that has failed them, without bringing in anybody that could help change that.

To the surprise of no one, it is still a problem this season.

Now that Chuck Fletcher has been fired in Philadelphia you could not be blamed if you wanted to argue the Penguins have the worst general manager in hockey given the way he has constructed this roster and the moves he has made and the salary cap situation he has fumbled.

But Sullivan does not get to escape blame here, either. And he has to own a lot of this failure as well.

Which brings us back full circle on Carter.

Ron Hextall may have given Carter a crazy contract that is nearly impossible to move. Sullivan may not be able to do anything about having him on the roster.

But he can certainly limit when he uses him. And despite Carter’s flaws, despite his struggles, he still seems to find himself on the ice in every high leverage situation. He plays at the end of periods, he plays at the end of games, he starts overtime, he is protecting one-goal leads. After the Penguins score goals. And his line consistently gets scored on. In big moments. In game-changing moments. In every moment.

At some point you have to figure out a way to avoid that. I hate to be a “do something!” guy, but do SOMETHING. Scratch him. Play him on the fourth line. Try anything different other than what keeps not working.

The Penguins entered the season with questions on the bottom-six, on defense, and in goal.

They went into the trade deadline with Brian Dumoulin still skating on the top defense pairing, with Jeff Carter playing a prominent role on the third line, and with an unsettled goalie situation.

Despite making a series of trades at the deadline, they came out of it and still have Dumoulin on the top defense pairing, Carter playing a prominent role on the third line, and an unsettled goalie situation with the same goalies.

Even worse, they simply managed to foul up their salary cap situation even worse with a player that solves none of their needs (Mikael Granlund) and make their defense worse by swapping out Pierre-Olivier Joseph for Dmitry Kulikov.

It did not have to be this way. It should not have been this way.

The people running the ship behind the scenes and behind the bench are simply steering it directly at the iceberg.

All while the fuzzy IceBurgh desperately tries to start a Let’s Go Pens chant to muffle the anger.