The Pittsburgh Penguins have certainly provided their fans, as well as the rest of the league, with a tremendous shock this season.
While many probably should have expected a decline from last season’s Eastern Conference Champion team given the loss of key players such as Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, and Ty Conklin, not many expected them to be in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and four points out of a playoffs spot with 21 games to go in the season.
This has been a productive season for the Penguins, whether or not they ultimately make the playoffs. Fundamental problems that were perhaps masked by the momentum of success on the ice the past two seasons have come to light, and clear actions to improve the team can now be taken.
One such issue—the flawed coaching of Michel Therrien, both in terms of his ability to motivate the team and to best utilize his players’ talents—has already been addressed.
The other fundamental problem with the team’s play this season is a general lack of discipline.
This reveals itself in the inexcusably poor power play execution given the offensive talent on the team, their 23rd ranked team goals-against-average, their league worst shots-per-game total, their ninth-worst shots-against-per-game total, and their visible failure to take care of the puck and make high-percentage plays.
Discipline is an area that is greatly affected by the ability of a coach to instruct and motivate his players, but having players who bring desire and a high hockey IQ to the table very much helps.
The Penguins have perhaps the strongest young nucleus in the league and celestial potential. Trades could be made to improve the team, for sure. But this upcoming deadline is not the time for an improperly calculated shakeup for the sake of one playoff run to avoid bad publicity.
The Penguins have already battled back into the playoff picture, now sitting eighth in the Eastern Conference and just two points behind the New York Rangers for sixth place, with Buffalo and Florida (seventh, ninth) each having a game in hand.
The battle for the last three playoff spots in the East is wide open, with each team displaying inconsistency throughout the season and each having their own question marks.
The Pens already have the most talent of these teams as well as the most momentum, having gone 5-1-1 under interim coach Dan Bylsma and playing much more inspired hockey than they were under Therrien.
They have already made a much publicized transaction in trading Ryan Whitney, an offensively gifted young defenseman with high upside who has been slowed by a foot injury last season and struggled to regain his form after offseason surgery.
In doing so, they gave up an asset whose type they had plenty of and for whom they were dedicating $4 million/year in cap space.
They addressed two key needs: a quality, physical top-six winger in Chris Kunitz who will fit well with Sidney Crosby’s break-neck pace and style, a quality prospect winger in Eric Tangradi. The Pens will hold the rights to Kunitz and Tangradi for several years, with Kunitz being signed to a long-term contract and Tangradi being a 20-year old prospect.
This is exactly the kind of trade the Penguins should have made before the deadline: a trade that can help now and years down the road.
If Ray Shero is looking to make more deals before the March 4 deadline, he has to make them while keeping an eye toward the future.
Here are some considerations he should be making:
Experienced Veteran Leadership
For certain, the Penguins are a young and talented team. While this is a great asset, youth presents great complications that have borne themselves in the Penguins’ play this season.
Young players can be more vulnerable in moments of adversity given that they don’t have the experience to deal with it. The Penguins crumbled with one uninspired effort after another during their 4-11-0 stretch through December and early January, which is largely responsible for where they are today.
Veterans who have been through the highs and lows of the league provide the guidance to young players through these difficult times. Furthermore, veterans who have won championships bring the experience of knowing what it takes to make a Cup run.
The Penguins should strongly consider bringing in such a leader for the explicit purpose of captaining the team, taking the pressure off Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and showing them how to lead.
A great example of the effect a veteran leader can have on a team is the pre-lockout Tampa Bay Lightning. After putting far too much pressure on Vincent Lecavalier by naming him Captain as a teenager, they brought in Dave Andreychuk to provide veteran guidance and ultimately named him Captain.
The end result? Lecavalier’s game took a giant leap forward in the 2003 and 2004 seasons, and the young and talented Lightning won the Cup in 2004.
There are a number of “Dave Andreychuks” rumored to be on the block. Bill Guerin would be a terrific addition to the Penguins along these lines. Having already won a Cup in New Jersey, he would bring his experience and leadership along with size, grit, and the ability to still put the puck in the net.
While he will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and is currently signed to a sizable $4.5 million/year contract, surely that amount will drop in what is going to be a much more difficult free agency market for players, not to mention veterans.
The Penguins have plenty of offensive, puck-moving defensemen in Gonchar, Whitney, Letang, and Goligoski (who should be in the NHL right now).
Where they’re short is in mobile, rock-solid, stay-at-home defensemen who they can count on for 22-25 minutes a night of quality play in their own end. Brooks Orpik fits this bill and is very good (and should be given more time than he is), but he is their only one.
Rob Scuderi and Mark Eaton can provide good positional play and block shots, but they’re sloppy skaters and they can’t play enough minutes. Hal Gill is a good penalty killer, has a long reach, and can be physical, but he is embarrassing for a Pens fan to watch in open ice.
They should look for mobile, top-four stay-at-home defensemen at this trade deadline and beyond.
One More Top-Six Forward
There are a couple of different approaches to tooling lines for offensive productivity.
One approach is to pair skilled forwards and round out the line with a two-way forward, usually a grinder. Using this approach, teams with a full top-six group of offensive forwards can employ three scoring lines.
The other, and more conventional, approach is to stack the top-two lines and use two checking lines.
In Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Sykora, Satan, and Staal, they have a group of forwards who have shown they can (or do) produce offense at top-six levels. Given that Sykora and Satan will be free agents this offseason, and that they are getting inconsistent offensive production from anyone not named Crosby or Malkin, they could probably use one more top-six forward, perhaps someone under contract for a number of years.
Furthermore, they have to decide if they are going to play Crosby and Malkin together on the same line or play them apart. If they decide to play them apart, they need to acquire another scoring winger, in which case they can roll three scoring lines centered by Crosby, Malkin, and Staal.
If they decide to play Crosby and Malkin together, then they can go either with another scoring winger or a two-way, offensively productive centerman.
This is a very fundamental consideration to make when thinking about making personnel changes (and generally in running a team). Obviously, Crosby and Malkin are the fundamental pieces of the core, as to have arguably the two best centers in the league (and two best play-making Centers, at that) is to possess the nucleus of a team winning multiple Cups and perennially contending. (Just ask the 19800s Edmonton Oilers, the early-mid 1990s Pittsburgh Penguins, and the late-90s to early-2000s Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche.)
Aside from these two, the Pens should look at two-to-three players that they simply cannot afford to lose right now as forming part of their core.
Marc-Andre Fleury, despite his inconsistency and need to improve his rebound control, is still arguably the most talented and athletic young goalie in the league and will surely improve with quality coaching.
Brooks Orpik is their best stay-at-home defenseman and the only one who brings consistently good defensive play and effort every game.
Finally, the season has shown just how valuable Sergei Gonchar is to the team, as they have missed his presence on the point of the power play and his ability to move the puck up ice to start a rush. While he’s in his mid-30s, has only one more year left on his contract, and does not fit into a long-term scenario as the aforementioned four players do, he still has great play left in him and is a player who the Penguins can’t play without right now.
This is something that the Penguins have truly lacked for, well, a long time.
The names of elite talents—Lemieux, Jagr, Francis, Crosby, Malkin, Coffey, Gonchar, and Kovalev—come to mind when the Penguins are the topic of hockey conversation so naturally they are thought of as a team with skilled players in the context of the last two decades.
But having a collection of skilled players is useless unless a game plan is in place to utilize them and a group of complement players exist to blend with them in said game plan.
No such strategy, or more broadly identity, really exists for the Pens. They’re not really a speedy, aggressive, fore-checking team. Nor are they a controlled, puck possession-based team like Detroit.
Part of this is down to having a coach who instills discipline and motivation in the team’s players, but part of this is having players with the right assets to maximize the effectiveness of a game plan.
Maximizing Bang for the Buck
This is the golden rule of sports management, particularly in sports with salary caps. Cap space is a scarce resource and must be utilized efficiently. Having the right coach in place to get the most out of players is a part of this, but when a team spends close to the cap and sits 10th place in its conference, then it should change how its money is spent (i.e., get new players).
Crosby and Malkin together produce a $12.534 million cap hit. Next year, it will be $17.5 million. That’s a lot of money to pay for two players, but given that the two are numbers one and two in the league in scoring and are arguably the two best centermen (and perhaps players) in the game, that’s clearly money well spent.
Rather, the Pens need to look at how they spend the other $39 million of cap space.
This is far from too little to surround the two centers with a great supporting cast. If the L.A. Kings and Nashville Predators can contend for the playoffs by spending $45 million in cap space, then the Pens can contend for the Cup by spending $39 million on a group to complement Crosby and Malkin.
Shero needs to question how much value he’s currently getting and could potential get from each player’s salary outside of Crosby and Malkin. Could Jordan Staal’s $2.2 million cap hit (soon to be $4 million) be better spent than on a very young two-way center with high upside, but who will never get the chance of centering one of the top-two lines and has been held back by being given a primarily checking role?
Could the $6-plus million cap hit spent on Hal Gill, Mark Eaton, and Philippe Boucher yield improved results if spent elsewhere? Already, Shero has made a wise decision in trading a $4 million cap hit (Whitney), an asset in which the Penguins are deep (offensive, puck-moving defensemen), for a forward asset in which the Penguins are thin (Kunitz) of almost the same dollar value ($3.75 million).
Patience, Patience, Patience
Yes, the Pens have had a disappointing season thus far. And yes, it would be a disaster for them to miss the playoffs this season. But that does not justify making a series of overly bold moves at the deadline. Any moves the Pens make at the deadline must fit with their long-term plans.
The Pens must also bear in mind that this summer presents opportunities for personnel improvement in both the draft and the free agency market. There’s always the possibility of trading up in this year’s draft to grab another top prospect while also opening cap space to go after top free agents.