It is such a simple question. If an outsider asked you “What are the Pittsburgh Penguins?” you’d probably have an answer pretty quickly.
Now, say you had 10 different people in a line and asked them that question. There’s a chance that all ten might just have a different answer.
As any roller coaster ride goes up-and-down, an 82-game season will do much of the same. If you’re one of the fortunate 16 teams to make the playoffs, you’ll experience the same emotional roller coaster.
For the second season in a row, the Penguins face an uphill battle to make the postseason. Last season, they willed their way in as anyone would expect.
Are they good enough to make it again this season? Let’s take a stab at what the Penguins really are.
The Penguins are good
When Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang headline a roster, there’s a chance you will win a lot. Add to that the likes of Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Justin Schultz and it’s even more promising.
There are plenty more role players, too. Those are just the stars and complementary pieces on this loaded roster.
No one can discount two time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Matt Murray. His trusty backup, Casey DeSmith, has been solid, too.
Talent oozes from the team. General manager Jim Rutherford does well in supplementing his stars with solid complementary pieces. Meanwhile, head coach Mike Sullivan usually uses his chess pieces in a successful manner.
With the talent the Penguins possess, their roster is as good as any in the league.
The Penguins are aging
It happens to every team and player. Father Time eventually begins to slowly catch up to them.
However, no one is suggesting that Crosby or Malkin or Kessel are on the decline. Could they be? Certainly. But, because of their talents, any “decline” still places them among the games elite.
The truth is that the Penguins average age calculates out to 28.4. Meanwhile, the league average is 27.7. They aren’t even a whole year above the average but they are over that threshold now.
Crosby, Kessel and Letang are 31. Malkin is now 32. So are Patric Hornqvist and Jack Johnson. Then, Matt Cullen is 42 years young.
Of course, Cullen, the oldest player in the league, brings the average age up. The Penguins would likely be at — or even — slightly below the average without him. Theoretically, they aren’t that old. But their biggest stars are on the wrong side of 30.
The closest thing to a star outside of them is Guentzel. He isn’t a guy you’d want to be the guy on your team.
Pittsburgh isn’t quite on the territory the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks were in. They have some young supplemental talent. However, they are seeing their stars enter the ‘back-9’ phase of their career.
The Penguins are in need of prospects
I, for one, believe the Penguins are best suited keeping their first round pick this season. On Monday, Rutherford said he believes the Penguins will.
He would know.
Now, of course, anything can happen between now and the trade deadline. Rutherford has a history and making trades and including his top draft selection. Meanwhile, he’s only made one first round selection in his tenure.
After Teddy Blueger’s graduation to the NHL, the Penguins don’t have many more legitimate prospect to get excited over. Meanwhile, Filip Hallander and Calen Addison, the Penguins’ two second rounders this past season, are a ways away.
Rutherford said he thinks this draft is loaded. If the Penguins find someone who can help immediately, they’d be thrilled. However, that may not happen. But, if it’s someone who can help by the end of next season, that is just as big.
Unless there is a gift of an offer, I expect Rutherford to keep the pick. That is important for the future. They’ve sacrificed a lot of it to win their consecutive Stanley Cups.
After taking a look at what the Penguins are, there are some things the Penguins aren’t.
The Penguins aren’t as fast
Over the championship runs, the Penguins set the precedent for being fast. They skated circles around other teams. Guys like Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust are speed demons. They blaze past people on the ice.
However, Hagelin has since moved on to the Kings.
After three seasons of deep playoff runs, the legs won’t be as fresh. The older players will feel it a bit more.
However, Pittsburgh still has lots of players who can skate. But they no longer are the poster child of being fast. Teams have caught on to the success and began emulating the Penguins’ roster construction.
Now, the Penguins are trying to adjust to not being the fastest of all the teams. They’re attempting to find the next answer and be ahead of the curve.
Make no mistake, they’re still fast. They won’t outskate every team they play now though.
The Penguins aren’t consistent
Throughout this season, the story has been inconsistency.
One game, the Penguins can post six goals and shut the other team out. The next, they score one goal and get blown out by a bottom-feeder team.
Sullivan has cited a lack of focus. Meanwhile, he’s gone as far as blasting his team’s effort and compete level. He doesn’t do that much because the players do try. That usually isn’t a problem.
For whatever reason, the Penguins play down to their opponent. That sounds a lot like another local professional sports team that missed the playoffs in 2018 — and I’m not talking about the Pirates.
On most nights, the Penguins will out-talent teams. They just have an absurd abundance of it. That won’t always translate to wins. They don’t always seem to want it as bad.
However, no matter how often players dispute that following games, the team still reverts back to their inconsistent ways.
Consistency has certainly been an issue the Penguins need to fix.
The Penguins are not my favorites to win the Cup
Heading into this season, I would’ve bet a lot of my money on the Penguins to win it all.
They lost their first playoff series in three years, to the Capitals nonetheless. The fire and energy were back after the extended offseason. Winning was the only way and now that hadn’t won.
Between a full offseason for Derick Brassard to find his game, Murray hopefully staying healthy for an entire season and Rutherford making the right moves, the Penguins were primed to win it all.
Unfortunately, all three of these haven’t quite been true.
Brassard again didn’t seem like a fit for the Penguins and he was sent to Florida for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann. Other pieces were involved.
Meanwhile, Murray has had a few injuries again this season giving way for DeSmith to step up and earn a contract extension. His season started off horribly. He’s rebounded quite well but has had some rocky moments the past two weeks or so.
Rutherford signed Jack Johnson to a highly criticized five-year deal in the offseason. So far, the return has been as expected: underwhelming.
He also brought in Cullen. Cullen hasn’t necessarily been bad, but he is 42. The Penguins should be looking to get younger.
His contract extension for Jamie Oleksiak was essentially a mistake. Oleksiak wasn’t horrible but he was traded back to Dallas for a fourth rounder. He began to fall out of favor after the Penguins acquired Marcus Pettersson.
Rutherford didn’t have his best offseason.
These Penguins are and aren’t a lot of other things. These are only some of the main points.
I’d bet the Penguins make it back to the playoffs. They can absolutely win a playoff series or two. But now, too many other teams have an edge.
Winnipeg and Nashville are elite in the West. Las Vegas has seen Marc-Andre Fleury’s Vezina-worthy season push them back towards the top.
In the East, Tampa Bay is far and away dominating. Washington remains a force to be reckoned with. Toronto is young, fast and talented. Meanwhile, the Islanders unfathomably lead the Metropolitan.
We’ll continue to ride the roller coaster towards answering what exactly these Penguins are.
PHOTO: Mike Sullivan leads a Penguis team without a true identity currently. Courtesy of Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press.
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