Grove: The Penguins Have Issues And They Are Many

Making trades won't solve all of the Pens early season problems

Bob Grove
November 15, 2018 - 3:24 pm

© Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - Patric Hornqvist characterized the trade of Carl Hagelin to Los Angeles Wednesday as “a big message” from general manager Jim Rutherford to his struggling hockey club, which has lost six of its last seven games as it hosts Tampa Bay tonight.

It’s just the latest in a series of messages from either Rutherford, who pointedly and publicly criticized his team last week, or coach Mike Sullivan, who has been using healthy scratches, ice time distribution and line/pair assignments to prod his team toward consistently good performances.

None of them seem to be getting through to the Penguins, who are closer to last place than they are to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. In fact, only three of the NHL’s 31 teams have fewer points in the standings than Pittsburgh, and let’s not complicate that by considering games in hand.

It’s fair to expect at least a short-term positive bump in play from the Penguins as Tanner Pearson hits the lineup, but the reality is that this team is largely going to have to pull itself up out of the muck of a regular season that is almost a quarter gone. It sits behind the rebuilding New York Rangers and the learning-how-to-win Buffalo Sabres, and it’s even with the Ottawa Senators, who began the season as odds-on favorites to finish last overall and still seem quite capable of delivering.

This is certainly not the last deal Rutherford will make before the trade deadline. It might help the Penguins, as the struggling Pearson (15 goals in his last 99 regular-season games and -9 on the NHL’s worst team this season) has offensive upside that Hagelin does not. But the Penguins have again sacrificed some speed, as they did in shipping Conor Sheary out, and now must replace the valuable minutes Hagelin gave them on the penalty kill, where they are among the league’s best.

But bigger issues remain, and they can’t all be addressed in the trade market.

As good as Casey DeSmith has been, Pittsburgh is still going to sink or swim with Matt Murray, who figures to get the start tonight after being given three games on the bench to think through his own inconsistency this season.

Bryan Rust is off to a forgettable start with just a single goal despite more time on Sidney Crosby’s wing; Riley Sheahan has failed to seize the opportunity created by yet another injury to Derick Brassard and is miscast as a center for Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel; and Olli Maatta has failed to build on a very solid 2017-18 season, something a Pittsburgh team playing without Justin Schultz until February sorely needed.

Related: Grove: Management's Short Fuse May Not Benefit Penguins

The criticism around a lack of production from the team’s bottom six forwards is a familiar and still appropriate refrain, but perhaps a bigger issue is that the Penguins right now are not doing their best to maximize the talents of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Although he’s had other linemates at various times in recent games, Crosby still mostly lines up at 7:05 with Rust and Dominik Simon, a combination that simply doesn’t work. Meanwhile, Malkin has lost running mate Phil Kessel – to the detriment of both.

The Penguins could do a lot worse than leaving the streaky Guentzel with Crosby on a permanent basis to encourage the rediscovery of their playoff magic of seven months ago, and reuniting Malkin and Kessel. Those two can create defensive headaches, but neither Malkin nor Kessel has an even-strength goal this month. They need each other. Perhaps Pearson will assume Hagelin’s old spot on that line and refresh those two, and as such he may be the answer to one of the Penguins’ problems.

But Rutherford can’t fix all the others by picking up the phone. The Penguins’ pieces just aren’t fitting together right now, but at the end of the day, Sullivan and his team – all of it, the stars, the role players and the underachievers – are going to have to figure out themselves how to put the big picture back together again.


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