It was almost fitting that former Penguins forward Conor Sheary did some of the greatest damage as the Buffalo Sabres beat Pittsburgh 3-1 on Thursday night.
The Penguins have been bleeding talent in a disturbing way over the last few years, thanks in part to GM Jim Rutherford’s pursuit of grit, even when it comes at the cost of skill. Sheary’s two goals were just the latest reminder of a purge that continues to chip away at the support structure around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, and precious few other players who can move the needle in the right direction.
As The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reports (sub required), Malkin was fuming after Thursday’s ugly loss.
“They (the Sabres) were hungry,” Malkin said. “They played so much faster. I think we only played for 30 minutes. We take a couple bad penalties, and they changed (the) game. Again, (it’s) a young league right now — we need to play hungry, we need to play faster, every puck, we need to win. It’s not good for us how we played. We need to change.”
Malkin said that he hopes that defeat serves as a “wake-up call,” and notes that the Penguins need to take every opponent seriously, whether that opponent is Buffalo or Washington.
While it’s just one game, it’s fair to wonder: the Penguins want to change, but how much can they? How much of their struggles come down to management’s shaky bets on players who are possession black holes, or role players being paid like mid-lineup fixtures?
The numbers from Thursday’s games were downright disturbing.
You can even just look at it with a naked eye, noting that the Sabres — not exactly a possession juggernaut for, oh, the last decade — generated a lopsided 41-29 shots on goal advantage, even though the Penguins received five power-play opportunities (going 1-for-5) while the Sabres only had two (1-for-2).
The deeper you dig, the more troubling the numbers get.
Via Natural Stat Trick, there are some even-strength stats that are a cause for some concern:
- The Sabres generated a ridiculous 11-1 advantage in high-danger chances.
- Buffalo also doubled Pittsburgh’s scoring chances at 30-15.
- Only one Penguins player finished the game above .500 in Corsi For Percentage (Kris Letang at 52.78). This is especially surprising because Sidney Crosby was such a two-way beast last season, rightfully earning some Selke buzz.
- The pairing of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz was especially brutal.
Last season was rough for Schultz, but it was fair to chalk at least some of those struggles up to injury issues. If that’s a sign of more to come for Pittsburgh, then that’s disturbing, especially since the Penguins lost another defensive option by trading away Olli Maatta. Either way, Johnson continues to be a disaster for Pittsburgh, and the team needs to do soul-searching about whether or not he should even draw a regular spot in the lineup, even as a bottom-pairing option.
Erik Gudbranson seemingly had a new lease on life when he landed with the Penguins, and that will be an interesting situation to watch. (Gudbranson had a rough Thursday, although he was decent relative to certain teammates.)
Again, this was just one game. Malkin preemptively chided a viewpoint that the Penguins could have “20 games to wake up,” but it’s also true that Pittsburgh’s been in tough spots during plenty of seasons of the Malkin – Crosby era, only to find ways to finish strong and at least make the playoffs.
Of course, when you have players like Crosby and Malkin, merely making the playoffs isn’t good enough.
That said, it looks like making the playoffs also might not be easy, either. Again.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.