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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: With speed failing, Penguins need a Plan B

| Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, 6:50 p.m.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan looks down at his bench in the third period against the Red Wings Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan looks down at his bench in the third period against the Red Wings Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ new line combinations appear plucked from a hat. Or perhaps sticks were thrown into the center face-off circle, then randomly divided.

Bryan Rust and Dominik Simon give Sidney Crosby precious little skill to work with. Riley Sheahan isn’t good enough to center Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel. Daniel Sprong remains locked in fourth-line prison.

Sprong has no goals, true. But Rust and Carl Hagelin have just one each, and they’re pulling top-six duty and far superior linemates despite Sprong having way better scoring touch.

Uh, we think. Sprong has zero goals, as noted.

The defensive pairs have been juggled similarly. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on separate power plays.

All this ignores the Penguins’ main problem, at least in their last two games, lopsided home losses at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils.

The Penguins aren’t as fast as they used to be or as fast as they think they are.

That was absurdly evident against the Maple Leafs and Devils, who both outskated the Penguins badly.

Crosby said that the Penguins’ speed is still prevalent when they play better and hold a lead. There’s some logic to that. But there’s some denial, too.

The NHL is a copycat league. The Penguins won Stanley Cups in 2016 and ‘17 based largely on being hockey’s fastest team.

But now the Penguins are the NHL’s fourth-oldest team. Other teams have committed to speed and youth. The Penguins recycled 42-year-old Matt Cullen.

Ex-Penguin Jean-Sebastien Dea had two assists and got behind the Penguins defense for a breakaway Tuesday. He was buzzing around the rink all night.

Dea is 24. He left the Penguins via waivers in September.

Who Dea plays for won’t make or break the Penguins or Devils.

But in the Penguins’ most recent Cup years, coach Mike Sullivan and GM Jim Rutherford invested heavily in youth and energy, throwing kids like Guentzel, Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson into relatively prominent roles.

Some stood out, like Guentzel. More flashed back into their pan.

But the electricity and hunger they brought was undeniable.

Now, there’s a touch of the old man’s club about the Penguins. Keep those kids off my lawn (or on the fourth line, or in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, or in New Jersey).

That’s OK. That can be worked with. And perhaps the Penguins addressed that a bit by summoning wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. (Although Wilson is 27. Not exactly a kid.)

But Sullivan can’t always rely on speed as his primary weapon. That makes for a bad matchup on too many nights.

Sullivan needs a Plan B.

But what is it?

Mario Lemieux and the ‘92 Stanley Cup champions embraced trapping and counter-attacking when they trailed the Washington Capitals three games to one in the first round of the playoffs.

That would work with the current group. It would take pressure off the defensive corps, which has been a minefield outside of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. Trapping doesn’t have to be a conservative endeavor. Just quickly send four skaters the other way once the puck turns over.

It was good enough for Mario’s Penguins. It was good enough for the Montreal Canadiens when they won four straight Cups from 1976-79.

But Sullivan just won’t do it. His players just won’t do it. Stubborn,

They will continue to rely on speed they don’t have.

Scotty Bowman (who coached those Canadiens, and the Penguins in ‘92) had two or three systems implemented with his teams. Use varied from game to game, period to period, line to line. Not always. It wasn’t too complicated. But alternatives were available.

At the very least, Sullivan needs to tweak what’s in place.

Have the defensemen pinch more selectively, because (whether it’s because of lack of speed or otherwise) the Penguins have trouble making up for bad pinches.

Work down low more, attack off the rush less. The Penguins are too often one-and-done after entering the offensive zone.

Using a system based on (fading) speed isn’t the Penguins’ only dilemma.

Playing stupid, unmotivated hockey may be a bigger problem.

Early November is no time to panic.

But if the Penguins get snowed under at Washington on Wednesday and absorb a fifth straight loss, it won’t be too early for a move or two based on carefully reasoned thinking.

If the Penguins are to continue emphasizing speed, they need to get faster. That especially goes on defense, where injury to Justin Schultz has left half of those remaining skating in molasses.

If the coaching staff is convinced Sheahan can be a third-line center, use him there. Trade Derick Brassard for the best (fastest) right-handed defenseman he can fetch. Brassard has been a bad fit since he set foot in Pittsburgh.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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