Tim Benz: Penguins have to fix current players before acquiring new ones
In recent years, the path to Penguins improvement during the season has been clear.
In 2016, it was to fire the coach and improve speed throughout the lineup. So the team swapped out Mike Johnston for Mike Sullivan and traded for the likes of Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley.
In 2017, it was to increase depth on the blue line after Kris Letang got hurt in late February. So the team acquired Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit and Frank Corrado on defense over the next few days before the trade deadline.
And last year, the gaping hole to be filled was at third-line center. So general manager Jim Rutherford traded for Derick Brassard.
Some of those moves were home runs. Others were swings and misses. But they were obvious attempts at making the team better.
This year, things seem hazy.
As the puck was dropping to begin NHL action Tuesday night, the Penguins occupied the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot with 58 points in 49 games. At the start of play Tuesday, every Eastern Conference team had played between 48 and 51 contests. The Penguins were 26-17-6.
Through 49 games last year, the team was in a worse spot with only 53 points and in an eighth-place tie with the Rangers.
But from Game 50 on, the Penguins went on a filthy run. They beat the Hurricanes, 3-1, on Jan. 23. That began a stretch where they won 11 of 13, with just one regulation loss in a span of 34 calendar days.
Brassard wasn’t acquired until three days after that stretch ended.
So, the Penguins largely rediscovered their elite form of the previous two seasons from within. That’s what needs to happen in 2019, as well.
It’s not in Jim Rutherford’s nature to sit idle at the trade deadline. He likely will make a deal or two. He almost always does.
As we outlined above, though, what’s the gaping hole for these Penguins? What’s the trade blueprint the fan base and media have been clamoring for? With so many players locked up as perceived contributors for years into the future, who gets subtracted from that equation?
“I’m not concerned about that,” Sullivan said Monday night after the club’s 6-3 loss to New Jersey. “Our responsibility is to play the game with the guys that we have. We have very capable guys. We’re a good team when we play the game the right way.”
Sure, another scoring winger would be nice. Yes, someone with some net-front grit and scoring touch to offset Patric Hornqvist’s injury concerns would help. Another defenseman with offensive skills to buffer any potential injury to Kris Letang or a slow return from Justin Schultz would be marvelous.
However, those commodities cost significant return. And the Penguins’ farm system isn’t exactly deep anymore. Every word I’ve heard coming from inside the Penguins is that Jim Rutherford would really like to hold on to his first-round pick this year for a change. The team has had only one (Kasperi Kapanen) since 2012.
That’s not to say Rutherford won’t use this year’s first-rounder as collateral if he feels the right move is out there. But is it? If it is, who?
To me, it feels like the big “trade tracker” story of the season is who will the Penguins send Brassard to, as opposed to what big fish can they land.
The Penguins shouldn’t be focused on getting someone new. Instead, how about reacquiring the Evgeni Malkin we all know and love? You know, the guy who is often an MVP candidate as opposed to one who scores just three goals in 16 games. The guy who is plus-16 as he was last year, as opposed to his minus-20 this year.
How about extended healthy stretches from Schultz and Hornqvist? Maybe Brassard can prove he should’ve been acquired in the first place and is worthy of keeping.
Or perhaps the team can get a third goal from Riley Sheahan since Dec. 6. Tanner Pearson has one point in five games. Phil Kessel is a minus-12 in January. Sidney Crosby has one power-play point since the calendar flipped to 2019. Matt Murray is allowing four goals against over his last four starts.
“It’s everyone playing the same way consistently. We’ve got to bring the same effort every night,” Crosby said after the loss Monday. “We’ve got enough skill in here. We’ll score enough goals. We just have to play hard.”
Crosby is right for the most part there. But it’s not just about playing harder. It’s about playing better. The roster is good enough. The guys on the ice need to start living up to the backs of their hockey cards.
And their contracts.
The 2019 Penguins are a team that needs to clean up its own backyard before it starts buying new patio furniture.