Things have finally broken down in Pittsburgh. As most readers know, the Penguins have fired head coach Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan. Assistant coach Gary Agnew was also fired on Saturday.
Johnston was 28 games into his second season with the franchise, posting a 58-37-15 record after replacing Dan Bylsma prior to last season. But things have not been working this season, with the Penguins holding a 15-10-3 record for fifth in the Metropolitan Division. They’ve scored just 67 goals and have allowed 67, running 4-3-3 over their last 10 games.
A lot of this stems to how poorly the Penguins played in last year’s post-season. They lost to the New York Rangers in five games in the first round of the playoffs and failed to score more than one goal in each of their four losses.
That same scoring trouble has been plaguing the team this season, with Sidney Crosby struggling to find the net. He only has six goals in 28 games so far, with a mere 19 points to call his own. Phil Kessel was supposed to bring a considerable offensive boost to the team, but he’s got just 17 points in 28 games. Only Evgeni Malkin seems to be lighting the lamp on a semi-regular basis, with 26 points in 28 games.
Some have pointed to Johnston’s style as a key catalyst to this lack of offensive punch, with his conservative “defence-first” mentality a problem for players like Crosby and Malkin. Handling star power isn’t always easy, but Johnston’s system sure seemed to pay off for a great deal of last season. Crosby had 84 points in 77 games last season, for instance, while Malkin had 70 points in 69 games.
Others have pointed to the Penguins’ lacklustre defence as a problem and it is indeed hard to argue with that. Apart from Kris Letang, who is now out for two weeks, and possibly Olli Maata, Pittsburgh has received little-to-no support from the back end. Letang has collected 14 points so far, but he’s also a team-worst minus-14.
Consider the rest of the defensive unit: Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Adam Clendening, Brian Dumoulin, Rob Scuderi, and David Warsofsky. Maata has eight points, Dumoulin has seven and Lovejoy has five. Cole is a minus-12 with two points. This incapacity to assist in fueling the attack is one issue. Their inability to help out goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is another.
Even general manager Jim Rutherford knows about his porous defence. “In fairness to our coach, part of this falls on me because I didn’t get the defencemen who were necessary,” he said on Saturday.
In signing Kessel, the Penguins thought they would have some support talent in order to bolster the Crosby/Malkin duo and flesh out the roster a little. That hasn’t happened yet. Their weaknesses continue to shine, even if Fleury stands on his head, and that’s not going to be a problem they can solve overnight – no matter who’s behind the bench.
But sometimes a coach shakeup is the right move to make, if only to send a message to the roster at large. Let’s hope the superstars in Pittsburgh pull up their proverbial socks, for Sullivan’s sake at least.