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Mark Madden: Disconnect clear between Penguins coach, GM

| Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, 7:06 p.m.
The Devils’ Ben Lovejoy gets the puck of the Penguins’ Daniel Sprong on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Devils’ Ben Lovejoy gets the puck of the Penguins’ Daniel Sprong on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan trust each other implicitly.

But that doesn’t mean the team’s brain trust agrees on everything. Some sort of disconnect can be evident.

Rutherford often has touted Daniel Sprong as a top-six forward. Sullivan must disagree. Sprong was a healthy scratch for Wednesday’s 2-1 loss at Washington. He has played 12 games but always on fourth-line duty. He’s averaging 8 minutes, 45 seconds of ice time.

Sprong has no goals and four assists in 12 games, so it’s difficult to say he has earned a shove up the depth chart.

But he has more points than fellow wingers Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust, both playing top-six roles.

At this point, Sprong detractors (including those in the coaches’ office) chime in with, “Yada, yada, puck support, yada, yada, defensive responsibility,” and those are legit criticisms.

But when a team has lost five straight by a cumulative score of 21-7, those criticisms apply to others, too. Not least is center Riley Sheahan, supposedly a beacon of defensive commitment but who stood by idly while his man, T.J. Oshie, netted the winner for Washington with 74 seconds left Wednesday.

Sheahan, who once went 84 games without a goal for Detroit, has a goal and assist in 14 games this season. So he’s not sparkling at either end.

Rust has a goal and two assists in 14 games and has not impressed. He has been a clutch scorer in years past but not a frequent one. Yet he’s on Sidney Crosby’s wing.

Some of Sullivan’s line combinations suggest clutching at straws, like Sheahan centering scoring wingers Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel.

That’s a doughnut line: Hole in the middle.

But Sprong is one straw Sullivan won’t grab at.

Patric Hornqvist is on Evgeni Malkin’s right wing. That’s a good spot.

But Hornqvist has spent much of the season skating with Sheahan and Matt Cullen. That made Hornqvist a very expensive checking-line right wing.

Last February, Rutherford gave Hornqvist a five-year contract worth $26.5 million. It’s unlikely he envisioned Hornqvist on a checking line when he paid that.

Hornqvist should skate with Crosby. His excellence down low supports Crosby and makes Crosby play below the hash marks more often. That’s where Crosby excels most. But Hornqvist’s speed is seen as suspect for Crosby’s line.

If Hornqvist’s perceived lack of speed was going to put him, basically, in a third-line role, he should have been let go to test free agency. Rutherford should have gotten somebody such as Michael Grabner, the speedy winger who signed with Arizona.

If Sullivan is determined to 100 percent build the Penguins on speed, why did Rutherford sign defenseman Jack Johnson, who isn’t particularly fast?

Cullen isn’t slow. But at 42, how fast will he be come spring, particularly if he (ill-advisedly) plays every game?

Why did the GM sign players who seem to go against the grain of what the coach prefers?

If anybody deserves the faith of Penguins fans, it’s Rutherford and Sullivan. Their two Stanley Cup-winning seasons came recently. Rutherford always has been best judged by the big picture and not move-by-move. Sullivan most often has had his finger on the pulse of his team’s identity. Perhaps he will yet again.

But the Penguins have won six and lost eight. That’s unacceptable.

Rutherford lambasted the Penguins’ performance on his bi-weekly radio show. His basic message: Some heads are going to roll.

But what’s the fix? And will Sullivan deploy any new assets as Rutherford envisioned when he acquired them?

The Penguins aren’t as fast as they were, or as fast as they think they still are. That’s where the problem starts.

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

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