Kevin Gorman: Penguins better make changes out of design, not disappointment
The Pittsburgh Penguins should be forewarned there is danger in disappointment, even more in running out of patience.
It wasn’t just fans who sounded dangerously close to losing theirs with the disappointing way the Penguins played in a first-round sweep by the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan didn’t scoff at the suggestion his team would make offseason changes, even though the majority of players are under contract for next season.
After the 3-1 Game 4 loss Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena ended their second consecutive season without a Cup championship, Sullivan talked about what a privilege it was to coach such character players and how much respect he has for them in one breath and about high expectations in the next.
“When you don’t meet those expectations, then everybody else’s got to take a step back and soul search and find out what we learn from it. What are the takeaways and how do we get better?” Sullivan said. “What those answers are, it’s hard for me to say right now.”
Here’s my answer: Don’t break up the foundation.
Centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren’t going anywhere. Neither should defenseman Kris Letang, who shouldn’t serve as the scapegoat for this series. Those three are untouchable, in my book, a trio who served as the backbone of their three Cup championship teams and a Cup finalist.
I would add goalie Matt Murray and 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel to that list, even if neither performed to his potential in the postseason.
The rest, to varying degrees, are trade possibilities.
“You can’t change the whole team,” Malkin said, dismissing the idea of major moves. “We just need to play better.”
The Penguins need to play better, and to do so they need to play faster. That s especially is true on defense, where they couldn’t keep up with the Islanders. That is why trading Letang, with his speed and ability to move the puck, would be foolhardy. The Penguins need him to play smarter, not faster.
It is more likely the Penguins would move one of their bottom-four defensemen, with Justin Schultz being the prime candidate because he has one year remaining at a $5.5 million salary. But Olli Maatta, Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson could be trade candidates, especially to help clear cap space.
That brings us to Phil Kessel.
Kessel is a goal-scoring winger, which makes him valuable to the Penguins but also as a trade commodity. Kessel might clash with his coach at times, but he had 27 goals and ranked second with 82 points this season and scored one of the Penguins’ six playoff goals. So the Penguins shouldn’t trade Kessel just to trade him.
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford ran out of patience and made a move for the sake of changing the chemistry when he traded winger Carl Hagelin to the L.A. Kings in mid-November. Hagelin was a strong skater who was solid on the penalty kill and scored 18 playoff points in 39 games for the back-to-back Cup championship teams.
Not only did the Penguins get a poor return in Tanner Pearson, but Malkin and Patric Hornqvist seemed to miss Hagelin’s presence, whether it was on their line or in the dressing room.
“I feel bad,” Rutherford said at the time. “Carl Hagelin is a very popular guy. I like him a lot, personally. He was a part of winning the Stanley Cup. But, at the same time, we’re not tracking towards winning a Stanley Cup right now. Changes were necessary.”
The Penguins are not tracking towards winning the Stanley Cup right now, either, and more changes are necessary.
But they need to make the Penguins faster — and better.
The faster, the better, but the Penguins need to make their next moves out of design, not disappointment.
Keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .