Mark Madden: Penguins probably can’t fix what went wrong
It seems like the Penguins still should be playing. But they’re not. Can they fix what went wrong? Judge for yourself after perusing this edition of refreshing Penguins notes. (Hint: Probably not.)
• The echo chamber says Jim Rutherford does a bad job as Penguins general manager.
But Rutherford has been GM five years and has won two Stanley Cups.
The Penguins had been underachieving for several years when Rutherford took over. His predecessor, Ray Shero, stayed a bit too long. Shero’s coach, Dan Bylsma, stayed way too long. Rutherford had a hole to dig out of.
But it didn’t take long. Rutherford had one adjustment year, then won two Cups. The Penguins easily could have won a third in 2018.
If you analyze trade-by-trade with a GM who makes a lot of moves, it’s easy to find flaw. But GM is a big-picture job.
Teams don’t win championships every year, and trading Ian Cole isn’t why the Penguins haven’t.
Most cities would build a statue of Rutherford. Pittsburgh complains.
The Penguins’ decline is organic and perhaps unpreventable. Consider Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles before them. Nobody wins indefinitely.
• Coach Mike Sullivan didn’t have a bad year.
But he needs to have a better year next season.
Bylsma mostly failed after winning the Cup in ’09 because he thought there was only one way to do things. He didn’t adapt. He grew stubborn.
Sullivan shows some signs of that. He needs to understand the Penguins aren’t the fastest team anymore and adjust accordingly.
• Can the Penguins possibly be better for trading Evgeni Malkin?
Geno Nation screams no, recoiling in horror at the mere thought.
But the Penguins definitely would be better off without the Malkin of ’18-19.
Malkin was a clear liability. He led the Penguins in minuses, turnovers and penalty minutes. Most nights, Malkin hurt more than helped.
If Malkin returns to Pittsburgh, he needs to fix his game. There’s a lot wrong with it. If he doesn’t, he will again be a liability.
One frustrating part of the offseason to date is the refusal by many to accept Malkin was awful. He knows it. Too many don’t.
The latest apologia on behalf of Malkin says his minus-25 is exaggerated because 12 minuses came by way of conceding short-handed goals. But weren’t those minuses even more damaging than ones compiled at even strength? Wasn’t Malkin most at fault for several of those shorties?
Malkin also sustained 10 minuses when the Penguins allowed empty-net goals.
But Sidney Crosby was on the ice for most of those short-handed goals and most of those empty-net goals. Yet, somehow, Crosby finished plus-18 and not minus-25.
• Phil Kessel didn’t necessarily have a bad season.
Kessel played like he always plays. His game has been the same since Day 1.
But besides points, his numbers were mostly rotten. Bad went to worse because Kessel often played with Malkin.
Kessel’s act wears thin, especially on coaches. Kessel is a respected teammate but mostly perceived as a cartoon character. He contributed mightily, but it’s time to move on, even if return is meager.
• Kris Letang had a great regular season. Maybe his best.
Letang had 16 goals and 40 assists in 65 games. He was plus-13. He combines everything wanted in a modern-day NHL defenseman.
When Letang was healthy, he was elite.
But Letang had some anxious moments in the playoffs, and those moments hurt. But the vocal minority is projecting Letang’s playoffs onto his regular season. That’s inaccurate.
The Penguins need Letang for many reasons, but his ability to get the puck to the forwards in the neutral zone with speed and precision can’t be replaced. Nor can his penchant for lugging the puck out of the Penguins’ end.
• Jack Johnson’s contract pays him too much and for too long.
But after November, Johnson was competent. He went from minus-13 on Dec. 1 to just minus-4 by season’s end.
Johnson became surplus when Marcus Pettersson came in and the defensive corps got healthy, but who knew Pettersson would perform so well as a rookie? (Rutherford traded for Pettersson, BTW.)
It was debated who should be scratched for Game 1 of the playoffs. But between Johnson, Maatta and Petterson, it was six of one, a half-dozen of the other. That decision didn’t affect winning or losing. Trading any one of the three (probably Maatta) will have little effect.
• Three Penguins should not be worried about at all: Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Matt Murray.
The performances of Crosby and Guentzel speak for themselves.
But Murray was very good from December on and even more so down the stretch. Murray proved he could handle a big workload by making 15 starts in March as the Penguins went 10-3-3 despite being riddled by injury.
Murray is definitely in the upper half of NHL goalies and might be in the top 10. His save percentage of .919 was all the more impressive given his bad start and the Penguins’ penchant for hanging him out to dry.