Mark Madden: No quick fix for Penguins' problems
The Penguins are a stink sandwich. There’s no easy blame, which means there’s no easy fix.
It’s only November, and the Penguins are just five points out of third place in the Metropolitan Division.
But they’re also in a pack of teams grasping at similar, or at a wild-card berth. Being in that pack is like sinking in quicksand. Unless you reel off a bunch of victories in a row, you wallow in the mire thanks to cap-induced parity and the miasma of too many three-point games. The season quickly gets short.
Do the Penguins look ready to reel off a bunch of victories in a row? Not after blowing a 4-1 lead and losing 5-4 to visiting Buffalo, they don’t.
I never saw this coming. Neither did Chicago, or the Los Angeles Kings. Multiple-time champions this decade who hit a wall and went splat.
So, what’s the problem?
They are many, and they are great.
• Goaltender Matt Murray is playing terribly. There’s no nice way to put it. His goals-against is over four, his save percentage under 88. Many cite his glove as a weakness. Right now, Murray’s weakness is the puck. He can’t stop it.
Perhaps he needed Marc-Andre Fleury to push him. Maybe he’s still grieving his father, who died last season. His penchant for injury always looms. Worst-case scenario: Murray is flashing back into his pan, like Jim Carey and Steve Penney before him.
Murray’s struggles carry with them a matching dilemma: He has to play. Casey DeSmith at his best won’t get the Penguins where they want to go. Murray has to play his way through his struggles in hope he finds his talent, which is considerable.
But where will the Penguins be by the time he does? If he doesn’t, the Penguins have no hope. Every other complication pales by comparison.
Potential sidebar: Coach Mike Sullivan loves an underdog, and by extension loves DeSmith. But did you ship Fleury to Las Vegas only to give DeSmith opportunity over Murray just 17 months later?
• Their Stanley Cups in 2016 and ‘17 were built on being the NHL’s fastest team. But now they’re not the league’s fastest, and won’t adjust accordingly.
This is a test for Sullivan. There’s more than one way to win. But will he deign to see that?
The defensemen pinch constantly. When they get beat, as they often do, the Penguins don’t have the speed to cover. The entire season has been one long odd-man break against. Confusion reigns as players get caught out of position. Speed fails the Penguins on the forecheck, too. The injury to defenseman Justin Schultz has crippled the Penguins’ velocity going in the other direction.
The system is failing. It will continue to do so. The emperor has no clothes. This problem is being exacerbated by a lack of commitment to defense that is perversely impressive in its scope.
• A team’s bottom six has to provide production and energy, preferably both.
The Penguins’ bottom six provides neither. It’s just a place to hide penalty-killers, and not good ones: The PK ranks a pedestrian 15th.
Matt Cullen (now hurt) has two goals. Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan have one each. Derek Grant and Daniel Sprong have none. New boy Tanner Pearson fits right in: He was zero-for-Los Angeles this campaign (though he did score his first goal as a Penguin last night).
In ‘16 and ‘17, the Penguins used the bottom six to blood young players with electricity. Now they recycle journeyman like Cullen and Grant
The biggest problem of all may have yet to reveal its severity, namely Sidney Crosby’s injury. If Crosby is out much longer, the season could turn even worse. A good Penguins team could tread water without Crosby, and has done that. A bad Penguins team can’t rally without Crosby.
But Crosby has started practicing, a good sign.
GM Jim Rutherford is working the phones. He has to be careful not to over-fix. Maybe this season is lost. Perhaps the Penguins need a re-set if Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are to have one last run at a championship. What if that re-set involves missing the playoffs for a year while a legit remedy is conjured? Rutherford has to be careful not to dig a deeper hole for seasons after this one.
No single trade will put these Penguins back on track. It’s easy for fans to bark about trading Derick Brassard or Daniel Sprong, but what would either bring in return? Even a shock swap of Phil Kessel wouldn’t fetch much: Just cap relief, if that. Do you really want to trade Olli Maatta, a 24-year-old defenseman with contract control at a reasonable price through 2022?
It’s disturbing to think, but maybe the Penguins have gone splat. All good things must come to an end.
A trade won’t fix it.The Penguins’ minor-league system won’t fix it.
Can the coaching staff fix it? Can the talent on hand fix it?
It’s only November. But, even by the standard of the month, the Penguins are a lot closer to the pit than they are the pinnacle. It’s a long way down.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).