Paul Zeise: Penguins are living in a fantasy land -- it's time to join reality

Paul Zeise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Hockey

PITTSBURGH — No, the top teams in the playoffs weren't "shaking in their shoes" with fear that the Penguins might sneak into the playoffs. And no, the Penguins weren't capable of making some magical Florida Panthers-like run to the Stanley Cup Final had they gotten into the tournament.

And, finally, no, this notion that this core group of old guys keeps them close to being a contender again and it is just a matter of finding the right complementary players to get them back over the top.

This has all become so ridiculous and so predictable with the Penguins, almost like "Groundhog Day," the movie.

The Penguins have old star players, they show a little bit of life, they fall just short and yet the band plays on and on and on. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and then throw up.

It could be argued the best thing that happened for Penguins fans is the team made a push down the stretch and made the last three weeks of the season meaningful. It was indeed fun scoreboard watching while watching the Penguins win and at times look like one of the most exciting teams in hockey as they surged toward a playoff berth.

That being said, the worst thing that happened for the Penguins franchise and future was that late surge that ultimately fell just short of the playoffs. It was just enough to convince some they aren't that far away from being contenders.

It almost assuredly brought some sort of false hope to the front office and ownership group, and thus, we are in for another offseason of the front office ignoring the Penguins' main issues and fixing the window dressing.

I would like to believe that isn't the case, but everything I have heard or read coming from the front office is that they are close and just need to stay the course. The belief is they were the best of the teams vying for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference and they were just a few bad bounces from getting into the playoffs.

Some analysts and assorted media types in town who used phrases like "the top teams are scared of the Penguins getting in" because they are so dangerous. Yeah, OK, the Bruins, Hurricanes and Rangers were terrified at the thought of facing the Penguins goalies for four or five games.

Give me a break. None of it is based in reality.

The Penguins need to have some real-world discussions about the state of the franchise and the fact that the band needs to be broken up. The only fix for this is to rip the Band-Aid off and get the process of making real, meaningful changes started.

Let's start with Mike Sullivan, for whom it seems like there is almost zero chance he will be fired. I am not saying he definitely should be fired, but if his seat is not blazing hot and he isn't forced to change his coaching staff, then I'm not sure why anything else matters.

I called probably be convinced that Sullivan has earned the right to at least start next season provided there are deep changes to his staff and it is made clear he is coaching for his job.

Then again, what really has Sullivan done in recent years that suggests he is still the right voice in the room? He started out with a bang as he won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. That is the only reason I could even listen to the "he should be brought back" arguments.


Since then, the Penguins have been a lot more pedestrian than anything else. The 2018 team lost to the Capitals in the second round of the playoffs, but the Capitals were the eventual champions and really were one of the best teams in the NHL all season.

OK, let's say that was not a bad season, but that was the last time the Penguins won a playoff series. And there have been horrific losses in those series. Of course, last season and this season, the Penguins under Sullivan avoided bad playoff losses because they just missed the playoffs altogether.

Sullivan is obviously a successful coach who is well respected around the NHL, but results matter. And the Penguins have had some of the same troublesome characteristics — poor power plays, worse overtimes, blown late leads — of poorly coached teams.

Maybe Sullivan is a great coach, but he hasn't been for the past few seasons. It is likely he has run his course here.

Post-Gazette colleague Joe Starkey laid out the fact that the Penguins have a goalie issue. I never understood the Tristan Jarry contract and still don't, but the Penguins are kidding themselves if they are tying their future to him. The Penguins need another goalie — no, Alex Nedeljkovic is not that guy either.

The Penguins need a goalie because they don't have one who is capable of stealing playoff games and leading them deep into the playoffs.

Then there is the elephant in the room — the aging trio (actually now a quartet) of stars. Those three have had a great run, but it is over now. And their presence — and contracts — prohibit any growth from actually happening.

I know they all have no-trade clauses and will be hard to move, but if Kyle Dubas wants to show us all how impressive he is as a general manager, he needs to get it done. He obviously should keep Sidney Crosby around and give him an extension because he is still playing at a high level.

He needs to figure out which teams Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson would accept a trade to and get it done. All three are still productive, so they still have value but consider this — Malkin and Crosby have played pretty much every game the last two years, and all four played this entire season. And yet the team has missed the playoffs both years.

That tells me their impact is far less than some seem to think it is and continuing to build a team around that core seems to be a classic example of a team lying to itself. This isn't working anymore. This model is broken and it is only going to get worse as they get older.

The Penguins were entertaining down the stretch, but let's not allow that to cloud the fact that this is a hockey team with a lot of flaws and seemingly no real desire to move out of this middling purgatory they have been stuck in for a few years.

The stars had their day, but they are now holding the progress of the rebuild back — that's assuming Dubas and Co. understand it is a rebuild that needs to happen.

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