Welcome to Penguins Perspectives, a weekly column by KDKA-TV Digital Producer Patrick Damp. Each Monday, Patrick will talk about the week that was, the week to come, what to watch for, and more.
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – This Penguins' season has been one of wild swings. At times the Penguins look like they're among the league's elite and will be playing into May and June.
At others, it appears the Penguins might miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Which begs the question – what exactly are these Penguins? Are they a Stanley Cup contender that occasionally finds themselves in a funk or are they a flawed team that's been somewhat competitive at times?
To be completely honest right off the bat, I can't tell. At the time of writing this, the Penguins' most recent loss to the Golden Knights was one where, as I wrote about earlier this season, they decided the first period was optional and by the second, it was too late.
In fact, this most recent slump has kind of been a microcosm of this entire season as a whole.
The power play hasn't looked great – including an abysmal 0-for-9 showing against Metropolitan Division rival New Jersey – and hasn't been able to give the team a lift in crucial moments and even giving up shorthanded chances and goals.
That also includes not closing out teams, as we saw against the Red Wings and then the Bruins in the Winter Classic.
That said, the Winter Classic wasn't the worst – the Bruins are probably the best team in hockey right now and when you're hot, everything goes right.
Then, despite a goal from Kasperi Kapanen in the Winter Classic, if the top-six isn't producing, the team isn't winning.
Let's start there.
At the risk of looking like I'm hitting the panic button, I would have to agree with some of the sentiments that it's time to make a move.
Now, that's a lot easier said than done. This isn't EA Sports NHL 23 Be A GM Mode where you can just hit a button and make a trade happen. A lot more goes into it.
As I have said though, currently sitting in the Penguins' front office is one Brian Burke, serving as the president of hockey operations. Known for never tying his tie, being a bombast, and many other things, his calling card will forever be swinging the big move.
Don't just take my word for it – he says so himself in his autobiography Burke's Law: A Life in Hockey.
"My modus operandi has always been to do something big at the end of my first year in a job. I like to get to know the team for a full season and then make a dramatic move. At the end of my first year in Hartford, I drafted Chris Pronger. At the end of my first year in Toronto, I got Phil Kessel."
This was Burke reflecting on his time in Vancouver when he also swung one of the most famous deals in hockey history. Drafting the Sedin twins second and third overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.
If you've never heard the story or read about the massive trades Burke swung to get those two at two and three is the stuff of legend.
Now, this isn't to say the Penguins should do something drastic.
Not at all.
Their big names are doing just fine. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, etc…are all doing their part. When they produce, the Penguins do well. The problem, as stated above, is the depth.
Again, something else I wrote about earlier this year, to be successful, your roster needs depth.
Right now, outside of the top-six forwards, Jeff Carter leads the way with 18 points and only six goals.
The Penguins currently sit 19th (as of Saturday, January 7) in goals scored with 124, tied with Carolina and San Jose. For a team with a +8 goal differential, 77 goals have been scored by the top-six forwards or roughly 62%.
With the rest of the roster only scoring 47 goals, the Penguins are hurting for depth.
This gets into another issue for the Penguins' bottom six – there is a distinct lack of identity.
The main players in the bottom six are Jeff Carter, Kapanen, Brock McGinn, Danton Heinen, Ryan Poehling, and Teddy Blueger.
While all of them have had their moments, looking at this bottom six, I see a former sniper in Jeff Carter and a defensive specialist in Blueger.
If I'm the Penguins, my idea is to get a fourth line of Josh Archibald, Teddy Blueger, and Ryan Poehling and keep it together. That's a line that will play fast, defensively accountable and high-energy hockey. Something that is not only worth the while but will keep POHO Burke very happy.
So that gives us a look at the third line, and five players: Carter, McGinn, Heinen, Kapanen, and Drew O'Connor.
Who stays and who goes?
Well, while I would like to see O'Connor play more, something tells me he would be the odd man out because as an LW that doesn't have to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL, it would be the easiest casualty.
Let's say we're keeping Kapanen and Carter in the NHL and on the third line. To me, that makes sense. Kapanen has been finding some production after being benched for a few weeks, and Carter as a right winger also has more upside than as a center.
So, what's the move?
Here's what I'm thinking – Burke should be calling a team that is tanking for Connor Bedard, the Chicago Blackhawks.
As they sit last in the NHL at 9-25-4, and a clear objective of getting the first overall pick – everything must go. Someone, I think could help bring out the best in Carter and Kapanen is center Max Domi.
Through 38 games, Domi has scored 11 goals and 26 assists and has an affordable and expiring contract costing just $3 million against the salary cap.
If a trade isn't the move, what is?
Well, it's time for difficult decisions from Head Coach Mike Sullivan.
First and foremost is Brian Dumoulin.
The guy is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and was a serious contributor when they won those back-to-back Stanley Cups but now, whether it was an ankle injury from a few years ago, time, or whatever else – he's no longer that player.
At 5-on-5, Brian Dumoulin has seen the Penguins score 21 goals and surrendered 33 goals. For a guy who built his game on defensive accountability, stability, and being the center of gravity for Kris Letang, that's not acceptable.
That's just the top-line, basic statistics, too. Diving into the advanced numbers, which you can do on Natural Stat Trick it's not much better.
The "too long, didn't read" of it – when he's on the ice, the Penguins don't have the puck and they're trapped in their defensive zone all the while his defensive abilities have atrophied.
Whether it's a serious reduction in minutes or just plain healthy scratching him, it's time, unfortunately.
That also goes for anyone outside of the top six.
There may not be a Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, or Conor Sheary waiting in Wilkes-Barre, but with the bottom six struggling and the team getting older, maybe it's time for a little 2015-16 magic and bringing up the young pups to nip at the heels of the old dogs.
Valtteri Puustinen and Alexander Nylander both have scored double-digit goals and assists, Filip Hallander, should he be healthy after a scary injury this weekend, has also put up some formidable numbers. Drew O'Connor has been effective in his time playing in Pittsburgh.
The same goes for Ty Smith, maybe it's time to just let him play in the NHL.
While those are just a couple of things, we'll end it here: I didn't mention it above because it's obvious.
Maybe the Penguins are just in a down moment. Kris Letang is away following the death of his father and is recovering from a lower-body injury. Tristan Jarry was injured in the Winter Classic. Jeff Petry is making his way back from injury. Crosby's slumps don't last long and neither do Jake Guentzel's.
Those are all very key contributors to this roster and aren't playing or in a dry spell.
We've seen the Penguins at full strength this season look like a team that is very much in contention for the division.
Maybe that's who they really are.
It's certainly not the time to hit the panic button, but our collective hands are hovering over it.
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