Eight games into the 2020-21 campaign, the 4-3-1 Pittsburgh Penguins sit fourth in the MassMutual East Division. That record isn’t cause for concern in and of itself, but the Pens’ play to open the season has them looking like a sinking ship.
Pittsburgh, which has long managed to outscore its problems, ranks just 19th offensively at the moment. Unsurprisingly, that has placed a sloppy, patchwork defense behind the eight-ball. It’s allowing an eye-popping 3.75 goals per game (29th). At 5-on-5, the Pens are controlling 49.6 percent of the expected goals (19th). That simply won’t cut it.
Though a host of characters are to blame for the team’s lousy performances, head coach Mike Sullivan is probably the odd man out. Despite leading Pittsburgh to back-to-back championships only a few years ago, the bench boss has seemingly lost the locker room. The club is displaying none of the energy and positional discipline required to win at the highest level. Instead, it’s sleepwalking through games. The power play is mediocre (18th). The goaltending is awful (30th in on-ice save percentage). Pittsburgh can’t even start on time, having been outscored 14-7 in the first period so far.
Remember, this group is experienced in the art of dispatching coaches.
Among the squad’s mainstays, Evgeni Malkin (3 points in 8 games) is without question the guiltiest culprit. When he’s on, his blend of power and skill puts him right up there with the best in the world. Only a season ago, he posted 74 points in 55 games. We know how dominant he can be. But when he’s off, he enters slug mode, lagging behind the play and barely feigning interest in the play developing on his doorstep. Unfortunately for Sullivan, he’s seeing a healthy dose of the latter.
Streakiness is nothing new for the 34-year-old, but this valley is particularly low. When does Malkin ever skate himself into a corner and surrender possession like this?
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the slowest, most disinterested 2-on-0 imaginable. Keep in mind that this came with the game on the line:
Two nights later, Malkin goes for a stroll behind his net while the Bruins hold the puck in the offensive zone. With Pittsburgh’s center nowhere in sight, Boston is free to attack the middle of the ice:
This is a star player who simply doesn’t care at the moment:
There’s no excusing these lazy sequences. Among the 24 Penguins who have seen at least 10 minutes of even-strength ice time in 2020-21, Malkin ranks 20th with a 41.8 xGF%. He slots in at 258th among NHL forwards in this metric. Last year, he led the club’s forward corps with a 58.2 xGF%. It’s not his linemates, who are similar in quality to those of 2019-20. It’s not his age either, as he can still gallop down the ice when it suits his fancy. He just…refuses to try.
On the back end, Kris Letang’s (3 points in 8 games) defensive warts continue to grow at an alarming rate. Though no one would call him the soundest blueliner, his back-breaking gaffes are becoming too frequent.
In the first night of Pittsburgh’s two-game skid against the Bruins, he assumes his teammates will win the puck battle for some reason and parks himself behind the weak side of the net. Boston wins possession and Chris Wagner is gifted a massive chance in tight before the Pens forwards can recover:
The terrible reads kept coming on Thursday. First, he turns the puck over outside his blue line and skates all the way across the ice, abandoning the slot and thus conceding a quality look to Charlie Coyle:
Then, he stares down his passing target for an eternity and gives up an odd-man rush:
Elsewhere, management’s decision to bring in two subpar defensemen (Cody Ceci, Mike Matheson) has done little to shore up a back end that is receiving no support from the forwards. John Marino (0 points in 8 games), who was a revelation last season, is also struggling mightily as Sullivan moves him from side to side and sticks him next to different partners. Brian Dumoulin’s lower-body injury (week-to-week) certainly won’t make life any easier defensively. There’s no continuity in the lineup and no conviction from any of the players.
This is especially glaring in the high-danger areas. Much like in the NFL, games are won and lost in the trenches. If you can’t hold fast at the point of attack, you’ll get steamrolled. Pittsburgh has gone from owning 53.5 percent of the high-danger goals (8th) to a putrid 36.0 percent this season (29th).
Tristan Jarry (3.92 GAA, 85.9 SV%) and Casey DeSmith (2.76 GAA, 87.1 SV%) have floundered between the pipes too, but they were never the sort of netminders who could steal you games.
It’s up to the big names to set the tone. Instead, we’re seeing a whole lot of this:
Sidney Crosby’s line starts this shift in the Bruins’ end and finishes it by fishing the puck out of its net. Take note of how Boston wins every single puck battle and is granted free passage through the neutral zone, while the Pens are continually late to their spot.
As far as offensive zone starts go, that’s about the worst possible outcome.
Look, this likely isn’t a championship-caliber roster anymore, but it’s better than this. Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Dumoulin, Marino, Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker. That’s a solid core, and it’s complemented by equally solid depth players in Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen, Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann. Teddy Blueger is one of the better fourth-line centers around. Something doesn’t add up. The Pens look dysfunctional. Jim Rutherford has vacated his position as general manager and now it appears the players have quit on Sullivan.
Whether it’s their fault or not, every coach has a shelf life. Eventually, the players grow weary of your message or even your mere presence. It happens to the best of them. It’s interim GM Patrik Allvin’s job to find out whether they’ve tuned Sullivan out entirely. If they have, then he must bring in a coach who’ll get them to buy in one last time.