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What now? Penguins face crucial off-season after flameout

What now? Penguins face crucial off-season after flameout
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PITTSBURGH—Jim Rutherford’s question was rhetorical. The answer — whenever the architect the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager arrives at it — will determine how the franchise emerges from the rubble of a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

Pittsburgh Penguins must regroup during their earliest off season in 13 years after being swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the NHL hockey playoffs.  (Gene J. Puskar / AP)

“Are guys too content with where they’re at in their careers because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups?” Rutherford wondered aloud Thursday as his team packed up for its longest off-season in 13 years.

Just 22 months removed from becoming the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships, captain Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins are at a crossroads.

“It’s disappointing to have this long of an off-season,” said Crosby, who posted the sixth 100-point season of his career but managed just one against the Islanders. “It’s been a while since we’ve had this much time really.”

Failing to three-peat by losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in six hotly contested games against an archrival — as Pittsburgh did last spring when it lost to Washington in the second round — is one thing. Scoring just six goals while getting outskated, outplayed and outworked by a team with a new coach, a journeyman goaltender and little playoff success over the last quarter century is quite another.

“(The Islanders) played the right way and they were eager to win,” Rutherford said. “They were determined and the Penguins weren’t.”

Maybe the end shouldn’t have been so stunning. Though the Penguins extended their playoff streak to 13 years and counting, they only sporadically played the kind of intelligent and responsible hockey coach Mike Sullivan has tried to instil from the moment he took over in December 2015.

Injuries to stars like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang didn’t help. Neither did a significant amount of roster turnover. Yet Pittsburgh’s best stretch came during a 10-3-3 sprint through March, one the Penguins made with Malkin and Letang available only occasionally. Sullivan pointed to an increased “co-operative effort” by the group with Malkin and Letang missing, a key ingredient in “what it takes to win.”

When they returned full time for the playoffs, the cohesion vanished.

Malkin ended a wildly uneven year by struggling to find the dominance that once came so easily. Letang, whose play over the first four-plus months helped the Penguins rebound from a decidedly sluggish start, had a handful of miscues against the Islanders that led immediately to pucks in the back of the Pittsburgh net.

The question going forward is whether Letang, Malkin and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel — all of whom will be 32 or older when next seasons open — can make the necessary adjustments to their respective games over the next six months to make sure they stick around for the rest of a championship window Rutherford insists remains open.

All four have had highly successful careers and were integral parts of the core group that raised two Stanley Cup banners to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena. All four, however, also have a penchant for taking risks, gambles they could afford to make because their talent often helped them recover when those gambles went awry.

That wiggle room is gone. The evidence came during a series in which the Penguins led for less than five minutes.

Crosby — who will be in the conversation for the Selke Trophy given annually to the league’s top defensive forward — insists his longtime teammates can adapt.

Letang isn’t really sure he has to. Asked if he will take a more defensive-oriented approach heading into his 14th season, he bristled.

“At the end of the day, yeah, I wish I could have done something else at different times, but I don’t think the question is to change my whole game,” Letang said. “I’m not going to change three plays in my whole year for the type of game I play.”

And there’s the dilemma for the front office. The Penguins have to decide whether they need to adjust their style or their personnel — or both. Whether they can find takers for veterans with their names on the Cup multiple times but also multiple years left on lucrative contracts will play a factor. Either way, Sullivan believes there needs to be a renewed focus when his team — however it is constituted — returns in September.

“The challenge is to make sure that there’s 100 per cent buy-in throughout the lineup,” Sullivan said. “I think the area of our identity that we lost a little bit is the hard-to-play-against aspect.”

NOT SO THIN BLUE LINE

Rutherford defended the play of his defenders, Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson specifically. Both are big bodies not known for their skating. Gudbranson was solid after arriving in a trade with Vancouver while Johnson played all 82 games before being a curious healthy scratch for Game 1 against the Islanders.

“I think our defence is probably the best that’s it has been since I’ve been here as a group,” Rutherford said.

SEE YA DAD?

Matt Cullen had seven goals and 13 assists and remained a faceoff wizard — particularly in the defensive zone — in his 21st season. The 42-year-old, however, seems headed for retirement to spend more time with his wife and three boys. His leadership and character will be difficult to replace.

“I think just he’s such a pro in the way he approached every day, the way he led by example, the way he treated guys,” Crosby said. “He can still play.”
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