As of the time of publication, the Penguins have a record of 10-7-3. While a lot of teams in the current landscape of the NHL would kill for a record like this, it’s something of a disappointment for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Worse yet, the Pens haven’t exactly looked like world-beaters on their way to that record. So then what does Pittsburgh need to do in order to get back to their winning ways? Perhaps taking a look at what made them back-to-back champions in the first place.
The Youth Movement
The winds of change were evident when Pittsburgh began calling up several young players from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2014. This included the likes of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Scott Wilson. And just last year, Pittsburgh did it again by bringing up Jake Guentzel, the phenom who tied the all-time rookie point record in the postseason. At the end of the day, the Baby Pens were showing the depth of Pittsburgh prospect pool.
And it paid off with two Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. With Scott Wilson having been shipped off to Detroit for Riley Sheahan, the Pens have found themselves in a familiar situation – this is a complacent hockey club. There are no fresh legs, no youthful spark to get the vets going. It was what pushed this team to become the most dominant and frightening team in the NHL in 2015-2016.
While sitting at third in the Metropolitan division, it’s clear that Pittsburgh still needs something to wake them up. The Duchene trade left them with precious few options for targets to acquire, but maybe the Pens need to look at what they’ve got in-house before exploring the trade market once again. And considering who they’ve got waiting in the proverbial wings with the Baby Pens, now might be the time to pull the trigger.
The Kids in Pittsburgh are All Right
It’s pretty easy to see why Penguins fans are itching to see AHL phenom Daniel Sprong get another shot at the NHL level. Sprong currently sits on 14 points in 13 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Sprong also posted an astonishing 59 points in 31 games with the Charlottetown Islanders in the QMJHL last year. His lethal wrist shot makes him an easy call-up option for Pittsburgh, where he could bring some needed scoring touch to the top-six.
But Sprong isn’t the only AHL rookie who could shake up the big club. Adam Johnson received glowing reviews during training camp this year and could add some much-needed center depth. Johnson also plays to the strength of the Penguins’ identity with impressive skating and a good shot. Pittsburgh has struggled mightily at 5-on-5 hockey this year, which could make Johnson a natural guy to throw into the line-up and see what shakes loose.
In addition to Sprong and Johnson, Pittsburgh might also benefit from bringing up forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Thomas DiPauli and Teddy Blueger. All three had encouraging runs in the pre-season, showing flashes of offense and speed. These players possess what the main club is currently missing; the Penguins identity of being fast and tenacious on the forecheck.
The Future is Now
Luckily for Pittsburgh, there is still plenty of time to address these woes and get the team back on track. They currently hold a favorable position in the standings and have the greatest player in the world on their payroll. As long as you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as a one-two punch, you’re going to be a competitive hockey team. But with Crosby and Malkin on the wrong side of 30, the future may be approaching in Pittsburgh soon.
Matt Murray has taken ownership of his net and Conor Sheary is locked up on a team-friendly deal. It’s inevitable that this Penguins team will look remarkably different in a few years. But for a team that’s looking for a third straight Cup, the future may need to get here sooner than anticipated.
Pittsburgh is dealing with an aging core, a lack of offense and severe identity issues. It’s a familiar song, as this is exactly what was bothering the Penguins during a dark period from 2011 to 2015. The Penguins need a spark and have all the tools available to do that. All they need to do is make the call.