Lack of depth, urgency among Penguins’ woes
PITTSBURGH — It’s over. No Stanley Cup, no parade, no special T-shirts.
The Penguins were bounced from the playoffs in the second round after two consecutive championship seasons.
And, no, this is not similar to what happened in 1993, when the Penguins were eliminated by the New York Islanders after two Cup wins. That team was overconfident, got careless and was beaten by a vastly inferior team.
This year’s Penguins didn’t have an attitude problem. They lost a tough series to a quality team.
Why are they headed for vacation early this year?
1. Depth. The salary cap caught up with the Penguins and robbed them of depth throughout the roster.
Veteran role players Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen all relocated. Bonino got a break-the-bank deal from Nashville the Penguins had no chance to match.
Had they known Cullen was going to sign with Minnesota, they probably would have made an effort to keep Kunitz. But they incorrectly thought Cullen was coming back and were surprised when he left.
They didn’t even make an offer to Kunitz, who wound up with Tampa Bay.
The defense had progressively gotten thinner, and that was exacerbated when Ian Cole was dealt away at the trade deadline.
Then there was the case of Marc-Andre Fleury. Keeping him last season was an incredible luxury that wasn’t feasible to repeat. The Penguins went into the playoffs with no viable alternative to Matt Murray.
Four valuable pieces were gone, and none of them was adequately replaced. That hurt.
2. Underachieving veterans. In the next week or so, the Penguins will probably come clean about injuries. It will not be a surprise if they reveal that Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard, Carl Hagelin and even Evgeni Malkin were playing hurt in the postseason.
They certainly weren’t themselves. Kessel had one of the best regular seasons of his career, then disappeared. Brassard came with a reputation as a postseason player, but contributed little.
Kris Letang had some incredibly wild ups and downs throughout the season, and that carried over to the playoffs.
3. Goaltending. Murray didn’t have a bad series against the Capitals. Nor did he have a great one, and that’s what the Penguins needed.
This is a tricky area. Murray made a lot of exceptional saves in the deciding game against Washington, constantly keeping his team within striking distance. But the first goal he allowed was marshmallow soft and helped the Capitals get off to a good start.
4. Lack of urgency? Much was made during the season about the toll two trips to the Final can take on a team. It would be wrong to say the Penguins weren’t motivated, but what was up with the slow starts?
Murray’s work saved them on some nights. You can’t help wonder, though, how the games might have gone if his excellent work had been accompanied by some Pittsburgh goals.
Maybe those sluggish starts reflected the problems with secret injuries. Maybe it was the fatigue kicking in after two extra-long seasons. Whatever happened, the spotty intensity was a factor.
So what do they do now? First, take a week off and get some distance from the emotions of seeing their two-year reign end.
Should Kessel be traded with a goal of beefing up the defense? Can Letang’s game be ironed out? Would a veteran back-up goalie help?
The Penguins don’t need an overhaul, but some changes are inevitable.
It will be an interesting summer, and it starts early.
Mehno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.