The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins lost five straight games, they were in the midst of a coaching change.
It was mid-December 2015 and GM Jim Rutherford had seen enough through the first 28 outings of the campaign — enough inconsistency, enough losing for a team with championship aspirations — to drop the axe on then-coach Mike Johnston. So, despite a 15-10-3 record, Johnston was canned by the Penguins and replaced by Mike Sullivan, who suffered four consecutive losses that stretched the team’s overall losing streak to five before setting Pittsburgh off on the best run of the modern era, a run that included two consecutive Stanley Cups and nine straight post-season series victories.
For the first time in Sullivan’s tenure, though, he has patrolled the bench for five consecutive defeats, watched on as his team has slipped from a playoff position to outside the Eastern Conference wild-card looking in and while no one is about to suggest that Sullivan, with the aforementioned two titles under his belt and a strong resume as the Penguins’ bench boss, is about suffer the same fate as Johnston, it appears other changes could be in the offing.
Ahead of Wednesday night’s loss to the Washington Capitals, a defeat that stretched the losing streak to five games, Rutherford made a radio appearance on Pittsburgh’s 105.9 The X and didn’t hold back when assessing his team’s recent performance.
“We’re not playing with any energy or determination,” Rutherford told Josh Getzoff. “We’re just trying to get through the games. These other teams are coming, they’re outworking us and they deserve to beat us — in some of these games probably deserve to beat us worse than the score indicates.”
So, what’s the solution? The Penguins went about shuffling the deck ahead of Wednesday’s game by recalling Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson from the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and demoting Derek Grant. And despite thoroughly dominating the Capitals on Wednesday, outshooting Washington 42-22 and out-attempting them 70-29 at 5-on-5, another loss could propel Rutherford to tinker with his roster in a more serious manner.
“We really believed coming out of camp that we’re a contending team,” Rutherford told Getzoff. “We start those first four or five games and we were very inconsistent. Then we played very well for four games, and then back to being a bad team. We didn’t play very well at all. We have the players that can work through it. Sometimes they can. Sometimes they can’t. I wonder if this group has been together for too long and maybe we need to change it up. That’s what I will watch for in the next few games.”
Don’t go thinking Rutherford is bluffing, either. Recent history, if nothing else, has proven otherwise. It was within weeks of him taking the job in Pittsburgh that he flipped James Neal to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, and Rutherford has had a penchant for early- and mid-season moves over the past few seasons with the Penguins. A quick rundown: he added David Perron to the lineup in January 2015, made the moves for Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin between mid-December 2015 and mid-January 2016 and waited all of a few weeks to acquire Riley Sheahan at the beginning of last season before making the additional move to bring aboard Jamie Oleksiak before the end of December 2017. This is to say that if Rutherford perceives there to be an issue with his roster, he has gone about rectifying it awfully quickly during his time in Pittsburgh.
The question, however, is where Rutherford would go about making changes to this group. While stipulating that even Wayne Gretzky was traded, it’s unfathomable the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang, who happen to be three of the four players cited by Rutherford as those who’ve produced to start the season, are moved. The same likely goes for Phil Kessel, who, despite often being the subject of off-season rumors, was also noted by Rutherford as one of the few players who’s helped carry the team offensively this season. The production beyond that group, though, has been spotty and one has to wonder if Rutherford wouldn’t contemplate moving a few of his middle-six forwards to refresh this group.
For instance, on the heels of a 29-goal, 49-point season, Hornqvist has managed six points in 14 games and is on pace for a 23-goal, 35-point campaign as he plays the first year of a five-year, $26.5-million pact. He carries a no-trade clause, but if he's willing to waive it, he could be one asset worth moving for the right return. Hagelin, too, could be a candidate for the chopping block. After a tough 10-goal, 31-point season in 2017-18, Hagelin has a single goal and three points in 14 games, and in the final season of a deal that pays him $4 million annually, he isn’t playing up to his contract. And there’s certainly a conversation to be had about parting ways with Derick Brassard. Though currently sidelined with a lower-body injury, the Brassard acquisition hasn't gone according to plan for the Penguins. Including the post-season, he has five goals and 17 points in 34 games. Brassard hasn’t been as impactful in his role as a third-line center as the Penguins would have hoped, and in the final year of an expiring contract before unrestricted free agency, he might be Pittsburgh’s best bet for a worthwhile return.
An issue the Penguins must address one way or another, though, is their goaltending. Rutherford noted that Pittsburgh’s duo of Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith have been “inconsistent,” but that’s a polite assessment, particularly of the former. Combined, the two goaltenders have turned in a .903 save percentage, which has actually been bolstered by DeSmith’s .929 SP in eight appearances. Murray has been the weak link, turning in an .886 SP through nine games. He’s been pulled in two of his past four starts, which were losses to the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils. The answer? Adding a veteran backup might be the short-term solution. But Murray, who has a meager .903 SP in his past 58 regular season games, has to recapture the form that saw him post a .925 SP across his first 62 regular season appearances. It's a must for the Penguins to succeed.
Rutherford may be able to play the waiting game and have faith that performances like Wednesday’s will bring results. And it's true that continued play like that should result in snapping the current skid and righting the ship. But if the performance dips, the losses continue to pile up and the Penguins aren’t where the front office expects this team to be in the near future, it won’t be a matter of if Rutherford makes changes. It will be a matter of when.