March 28, 2023
The Athletic

Is it too soon to panic about the ‘fragile’ penguins?

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Normally, the penguins handle every workout at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex the same way. After stretching, players gather in a circle around Mike Sullivan on the center ice and listen to a few closing remarks from their coach.

This happened as always on Sunday afternoon. But this time, the day after another loss, something else happened.

As some players broke away from the group, a prominent penguin shouted, “Hold on guys!”

The unmistakable voice belonged to Sidney Crosby, whose next words were known only to those who were with him on the ice – and whatever was said on that rink stayed on that rink.

Neither Crosby nor his team-mates declined to comment when asked, although the captain’s message was aimed at keeping things casual at a club clearly feeling the pressure of a seven-game winning streak. Last night, after a 3-2 home loss to the Kraken that continued a worrying few weeks that saw the Penguins go 6-1 0 and fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference table, Crosby admitted that his Club against him competed it.

“It’s tough, it’s difficult,” Crosby said Saturday night.

It’s also apparently upsetting to anyone other than him. The Penguins haven’t had such a long winning streak since 2005-06 — Crosby’s rookie season and the last time the Penguins missed the playoffs.

One thing doesn’t necessarily dictate that another thing will happen. Earning just one point from seven games doesn’t make the Penguins’ best 16-year postseason streak a failure. The Athletics As of Monday, they still have a 62 percent chance of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the latest model.

“I would agree with that,” said Mike Rupp, a former Penguins player who is now an analyst for NHL Network. “If you look at the league there are a lot of really good teams that aren’t looking that great right now and there are a lot of teams that a lot of us thought weren’t doing very well.

“It’s too early to write anyone off or crown them.”

Rupp is one of four network analysts who spoke for this story. The others — Rick Tocchet (TNT), Kevin Weekes (ESPN) and Craig Button (TSN) — all said they expected the Penguins to make the playoffs despite their struggles. However, each of these analysts also expressed concerns.

Button said the Penguins “lack a presence in their front group” outside of the top two lines. Weekes said, “They play a certain brand when they’re in their game… and the pens have been inconsistent in that brand.” Tocchet cited superstars like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin “trying to do too much.”

The analysts had more to offer, but you get the point.

“It’s not just a penguin thing,” Button said. “It’s a lot of little things.”

Players and coaches are unanimous, although like Sullivan, they claim after practice on Sunday that internal analyzes of expected goals and goal difference over the last three games are in the Penguins’ favour.

The eye test and the stats don’t matter if the penguins can’t win soon. They meet the Capitals in Washington on Wednesday, the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Friday and the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday.

Those Canadians gave the Penguins their first loss of the season, albeit in overtime. But that wasn’t the defeat that started this terrible trend. That would be a loss to Edmonton in the second game of a five-game road trip.

“I thought that was kind of a tipping point,” Weekes said of the Penguins’ loss to the Oilers in late October. “It kind of put them on course for the fights they’re in right now. I mean, come on man — you got a two-time All-Star goaltender you hung out to dry in game; They left him basically unsupported in his hometown (where he played with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings).

“That is embarrassing.”

The Penguins led 3-1 against the Oilers. They have since been surpassed by a 32-13 lead.

It didn’t matter if two-time All-Star goalie Tristan Jarry or backup Casey DeSmith were in the goal area.

It didn’t matter which player Sullivan tried as a third winger on the lines centered by Crosby or Malkin.

It didn’t matter if Kris Letang or Jeff Carter were in the lineup or not.

It didn’t matter if players called off from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton received a shot, if the top powerplay unit fired a shot, if opposing powerplays could or could not call their shot in principle, or if Kasperi Kapanen had done so’ t missed a wide-open shot like he did early in Saturday night’s home loss to the Kraken.

The Penguins have lost seven times in a row.

They lost when they controlled possession. They lost while leading several goals. They lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and all the losing shook them.

“We’re in one right now,” Bryan Rust said, referring to a bigger fight.

Rupp added from afar, “The penguins look fragile.”

They certainly don’t look like a club that has gained momentum from camp as a trendy choice to win East. Tocchet, their assistant coach for the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup teams, said he had the Penguins “in my top 4 preseason.”

Neither he nor the other analysts agreed with these two proposals, which are popular on social media:

1. Management made a mistake by bringing back an older core.

2. The Penguins are finally following the path of the Blackhawks and Kings — franchises that fell off a cliff after their multi-title runs over the past decade.

“I would think those things if it got to the point where other teams would surpass them,” Tocchet said. “If they don’t have the puck, if they’re always chasing – then I’d worry about hitting that cliff.

“That’s not what happens.”

So what happens?

Tocchet complained about a “trade in goal chances” and “some carelessness with the puck”. Weekes pointed to the performance of the “consistently poor special teams”. Button and Rupp reiterated to each other that the Penguins’ bottom six forwards “don’t do enough” — and not just from one scoring department.

“The way I see it, Crosby comes out or Malkin comes out and their lines do their thing – and the next batch of players come out and do nothing,” Button said. “They don’t make the other team uncomfortable. You don’t get dynamic displacement.

“I’m going to use football terminology: your best guys get a field position, then the next guys lose it. So you’re in this constant struggle of pushing forward and then pulling back.

Button said general manager Ron Hextall must consider taking a trade to improve the bottom six. Hextall who told it The Athletics Pierre LeBrun, who still believes in his group, has called the Penguins’ salary cap issues somewhat of a hindrance to the club’s improvement since taking his position. However, Hextall has to give credit for working within those caps to add the likes of Carter and Rickard Rakell ahead of the last two trading deadlines.

“A manager’s job is to look at a team’s problems and find solutions,” said Button, a former GM. “I don’t want to hear how hard it is. I don’t want to hear about difficult circumstances. Find a way to find solutions to your problems – that’s my feeling for managers in all sports.”

Button stressed that he “really likes this Penguins team.”

Rupp said that overall the group “is more talented from head to toe than the Cup teams of 16 and 17”.

Weekes suggested an improved Eastern Conference will play to the Penguins’ advantage to get out of the hole they’ve dug since, unlike last season, 100 points aren’t required to reach the playoffs. Insisting that the East is “too deep to be top-heavy” and the “Core of Penguins is too tried and tested to count,” he also warned that Sullivan’s group “plays with a lot of fire” when losing stops.

“This streak shouldn’t cost them the playoffs,” Weekes said. “But then again, I’m also counting on them finishing it soon and running a bit.”

And what if that doesn’t happen soon – like starting this week?

“If there are five teams that we expected to be good and they’re all struggling at the moment, that doesn’t mean all five will bounce back,” Rupp said. “But three or four will probably do it and I wouldn’t bet against the Pens.

“But again, they seem fragile at the moment. However, that can change quickly. Toronto looked very fragile, winning three straight and suddenly the Maple Leafs are back… apparently.

“I trust the penguins even if I don’t like what I’ve seen lately.”

(Photo by Sidney Crosby: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

#panic #fragile #penguins

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