Has Father Time finally caught up with the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby
Nov 2, 2022; Buffalo, New York, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) before a face-off during the first period against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The annual tradition of hockey fans wondering if this is finally the season when the Pittsburgh Penguins will miss the playoffs is back in full swing just one week into November. What looked like an Eastern conference juggernaut through the first four games of the year has quickly transitioned into conversations surrounding aging core players, potential personnel changes, and what the future of the Penguins will look like.

The past six games have been legitimately concerning for the Penguins. They have looked old, slow, and uninterested which has put them in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. There are a couple reasons why the Penguins are currently on a six game losing streak and if things don’t get corrected, this could get really ugly really quick.

“You’ve got to build [confidence],” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “There’s no secret. In a situation like this, it just comes down to finding your way and being determined. It’s work and finding a way to get out of it. We can’t sit around and feel sorry for ourselves.”

NHL.com

Breaking down the Pittsburgh Penguins woes

Defense

This is something that nobody saw coming over the offseason, but Marcus Petterson and Pierre Olivier Joseph have been the best defensemen for the Penguins thus far. The addition of Jeff Petry has been underwhelming, Letang has been a turnover machine, and Brian Dumoulin has never looked worse in his career.

During this six game losing streak, they have blown leads in four of them and have zero goals from a defenseman during this stretch.  It is becoming glaringly obvious that this team has some serious inconsistencies on the blue line. It will be interesting to see if they try to shake things up on the left side of the blue with Ty Smith now being a part of the system and how poorly Dumoulin has been playing. To put into context how bad Dumoulin has been this year, he has been on the ice for 21 of the 41 goals against the Penguins this year.

The Penguins defensive anchor, Kris Letang, hasn’t played much better. In his past five games, Letang has one point and is a -10. The leaders on the blue line for the Pens are struggling heavily and that is going to have to change for this team to snap out of this slump. It would not be surprising to see someone on the left side get moved before the end of the calendar year. 

Bottom Six Forwards

On paper, the biggest issue with the Pens over the offseason was their forward depth on the bottom six. For the first four games, it looked like that was not going to be a huge issue. However, during this six game losing streak, it has become very clear that Mike Sullivan needs to shuffle some things around.

Teddy Blueger and Jeff Carter need to get healthy sooner rather than later. Kapanen, Heinen, and O’Connor all have zero points in the past six games. Two of the names just mentioned got new contracts in the off-season and have done close to nothing to prove they’re worth the money they just got. Kapenen, who signed a two year extension this past summer, only has three goals in his past fifty games.

The Penguins management and coaching staff were hopeful he would find his stride this season, but so far that does not seem to be the case. It is understandable that having your usual third and fourth line centers injured is going to impact bottom six production, but having no offensive production at all is inexcusable for six straight games. 

Penalty Kill

The PK has been a head scratcher so far given the fact that Mike Sullivan coached teams historically rank high in defense and PK with his structure in place. However, the Penguins’ PK finds itself ranked 29th in the league in PK% (71.1%). It can’t be emphasized enough how bad this team needs its best penalty killer back, Teddy Blueger. Brian Dumoulin has looked lost on the PK so far this year and has been on the ice for the most power play goals against in the NHL.

The Penguins have played some of the top power plays in the league in recent games (Oilers, Canucks, Kraken) and have gotten exposed. The only good news is that the Penguins rank bottom five in the league in penalty minutes, so if they can continue to stay out of the box they may be able to survive this until Carter and Blueger are back. 

Coaching

Sullivan’s line combinations seem to be frustrating a lot of Pittsburgh fans, and deservedly so. Specifically, his choices with Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell are the biggest head scratchers. When Rust was playing with Malkin and Zucker, they were one of the toughest lines to defend in the league.

During this losing streak, Sullivan has shuffled around his top six and moved Rust to the Crosby line. Not only has this negatively impacted the Crosby unit, but it has greatly hindered the Malkin unit as well. Sidney Crosby only has one point since Rust was moved onto his line. In the four games Crosby was with Rakell, he was averaging nearly two points per game. Rickard Rakell has also suffered greatly playing with the Malkin unit.

Where do the Pens go from here?

Pittsburgh Penguins
Nov 2, 2022; Buffalo, New York, USA; Buffalo Sabres right wing Tage Thompson (72) defends as Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) dives to clear the puck during the third period at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The most common solution to a team struggling is usually a change behind the bench. Mike Sullivan just signed an extension over the summer to keep him in Pittsburgh through 2026-2027. Given the recent extension, it seems unlikely that Sullivan’s employment is in jeopardy. The core players are all locked up with recent extensions in place, so a serious roster shake up doesn’t seem likely either. This doesn’t give management a lot of options for any serious change and will most likely rely on Sullivan and the veterans to turn the ship around themselves. 

The Penguins upcoming schedule sees them on the road in six of their next eight games. They are going to have to prove they can win on the road during this upcoming stretch. The game on Saturday night versus Seattle seems like a must win at this point with the rising tension amongst the media and team. The Penguins throughout the Crosby era are notorious for having slower starts to the season, but this one just feels a little bit different. 

Has Father Time finally caught up with the Penguins? We’ll have that answer this season.