Believe it or not, Christmas is just around the corner. Word has it, the Pittsburgh Penguins have quite a lengthy wish list this year.
The team has been desperately struggling in search of a successful run for the first time in the 2015-16 season. But, without any luck more than a quarter way through the season, rumours are beginning to swirl of a potential overhaul in Pittsburgh.
The Pens currently sit fifth in the Metropolitan Division and are one point out of the last wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with 33 points.
Their problems have come from the management and dripped down to the locker room, infecting the atmosphere and chemistry among the team.
General manager, Jim Rutherford, had been forthright in his concerns with head coach, Mike Johnston’s decisions on who to sit out and who to play each night, specifically Daniel Sprong. Rutherford decided to fire Johnston on Dec. 12, replacing him with Mike Sullivan. Sidney Crosby is also in the midst of the worst season of his 11-year career. Not to mention, a surprise retirement from one of their depth players will certainly not help the mood in the dressing room.
Here are just a few of the Penguins wishes for Christmas of 2015.
Daniel Sprong Gets Returned To Junior
After impressing the Penguins brass throughout training camp and the preseason, Sprong cracked the opening night roster just three months after being selected in the second round in the 2015 NHL Draft. The Pens hoped that Sprong’s strong play would carry over into a terrific rookie campaign, but that hasn’t been the case. Sprong has appeared in just 16 of Pittsburgh’s 28 games, scoring two goals.
Those sixteen games are enough to activate the first year of his entry-level contract. The 42-game mark of the Penguins season, coming on Jan. 12, 2016, will make Sprong a free-agent one year earlier. Those concerns, along with his limited ice time, led GM Rutherford to blatantly call out Johnston for his decision of how to deal with Sprong.
“I have been urging the coach to get him in there,” Rutherford said. “We need him in there so we can get a better look at him.”
Sprong was put into the lineup on Dec. 9 for the first time since Nov. 17. Even if Sullivan now decides to utilize Sprong in the lineup, his production will need to see an significant spike if he hopes to spend the year in the NHL. He is an exceptionally talented forward with tremendous offensive abilities, and that is the key to his game.
Otherwise, Sprong’s future would fare much better in being returned to the QMJHL, where he represents the Charlottetown Islanders. It will be there that Sprong gets top-line minutes and the opportunity to play in all situations. He would be able to work on the defensive aspect of his game as well, an area which still needs great improvement.
The Goals Start Pouring In, Namely From Sidney Crosby
The Penguins were expected to have one of the top offences in the NHL this year, but that hasn’t been the case. Instead, it’s been their defence that has kept them in each game, quite the opposite of their regular act. The Pens acquired Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nick Bonino from the Vancouver Canucks. They also signed free agent forwards, Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen.
However, the offence has been consistently quiet, currently sitting 27th in the NHL with 2.36 goals per game. Their power play is just as bad, sitting at 15.6%, also the 27th ranked unit in the league. Most surprisingly, it has started with Sidney Crosby and leached down the depth chart.
Jim Rutherford had this to say about his team’s lacklustre offence.
“They’re capable of scoring more. Make no mistake, it’s not easy scoring goals in this league but some teams are figuring it out,” Rutherford said. “We have the guys who can do it. The power play has hurt that goal total. It has not done nearly as well as we needed it to.”
Crosby is on pace for the worst season of his career, with just six goals and 19 points through 28 games. That paces him for 18 goals and 58 points. Before last season, his lowest point total in a full year was 102, in his rookie year. Then, he dropped that mark by 18 points, down to 84. And now, he could drop an additional 26 points, slating the once next “Great One”, into mediocracy.
However, with over 50 games remaining in the year, there is still a slight glimmer of optimism that he will be able to hit a hot streak and return the Penguins to the elite of the Eastern Conference. After all, he did have a 25-game point streak in 2010 in which he potted 50 points, so he certainly has the abilities as a 28-year-old.
A Top-4 Defenceman Would Be the Perfect Gift
Since the middle of the 2015 offseason, Rutherford has been telling reporters that he will look to trade for a top-four defenceman to improve their blue line. Although, shockingly, their defence has turned out to be the team’s strong suit, Rutherford should continue to feel out the market for defencemen.
The Penguins currently sit with only two legitimate NHL defenders, in Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. Despite the obvious need for an improvement up front, how much stronger can your top-12 forwards really get while staying under the cap? Their offence is an internal problem that needs to be sorted out.
While the saying goes, “don’t fix what isn’t broken”, Rutherford would still be wise to bring in an upgrade to the blue line. In the hunt for a playoff position, the Penguins know better than anyone that defence usually wins championships. For the past six seasons, Pittsburgh has been ousted in the playoffs for their lack of defending. Too often they give up easy goals and play from behind. Another top-four defenceman would do wonders for the Penguins playoff hopes.
Contributor for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Prospects. Scout with the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. For questions, concerns, or comments, contact me at email@example.com or on twitter @SlawsonTHW.