When the Penguins suffered an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders in 2019, their first in the opening round of the playoffs in 47 years, it seemed logical that disappointment would be a motivational force for 2020.
Now that 2019 defeat simply looks like a harbinger of their short-term future.
Pittsburgh’s four-game qualifying round exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens is equally unexplainable, leaving them with nine losses in their last 10 playoff games and three consecutive playoff series losses for the first time in eight years.
It’s not just the losing that has to shock coach Mike Sullivan and GM Jim Rutherford but also the way it’s been accomplished.
After responding to a Game 1 overtime loss with a Game 2 victory, the Penguins built a 3-1 lead in the second period of Game 3 and then never scored another goal.
Montreal began taking Game 3 away from them minutes later, and the Penguins watched them do it without any response and then followed up with a Game 4 performance that had zero urgency.
The Penguins just went quietly.
Evgeni Malkin, their best player during the regular season, and Kris Letang, their No. 1 defenseman, had no influence on the series and that was a huge issue.
The Penguins’ third pair of Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson, along with a third line that was mostly Jared McCann with Patric Hornqvist and Patrick Marleau, were black holes that just sucked energy away from the team – what little energy there seemed to be, given the playoff atmosphere.
Marleau and Conor Sheary, late-season acquisitions, added little.
Goaltender Matt Murray followed a strong Game 2 performance by faltering late in Game 3 and was benched for the final game.
Sullivan, who made the wrong decision with Sam Lafferty in Game 3 and erred in keeping Schultz and Johnson together, was out-coached by Claude Julien.
That said, however, there’s only so much Sullivan could do with the team at his disposal.
As always, this is mostly on his players.
The Penguins hit the off-season with huge questions about the future makeup of the aforementioned third line and third pair, and of course about their goaltending.
Both Murray and Tristan Jarry need new contracts, and with an expansion draft in which they can protect only one of them coming next summer, it seems increasingly likely they would deal Murray – with a flat salary cap making it harder to give him the bigger contract he’ll be seeking.
They’re also shy a top six winger.
When the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead in 2014 and lost to the Rangers and then followed that up with a quick five-game exit at the hands of the Rangers in 2015, there were plenty of people who believed the Penguins “window” for winning Cups had closed.
They responded by winning consecutive championships, but now we’re having the same conversation.
Except that Crosby and Malkin are five years older, and that is a big thing.
I won’t ever count out either one of these future Hall of Famers, but if the Penguins are to win again with both of them in the lineup, the team needs to surround them with more players capable of taking some of the weight off their playoff shoulders.
Jarry and John Marino are certainly candidates; Brian Dumoulin and Jake Guentzel are already there; coming off his best NHL season, Bryan Rust could be, too.
But that’s not enough.
Not by a long shot.
The question for Rutherford is not simply filling these holes in the lineup – it’s filling them with hungry players who can bring energy and big performances under the playoff spotlight.
Rutherford gave up a lot of assets in wheeling and dealing for the pieces that won two Cups, and he and every GM in the NHL would do that again if they could.
Only this time he has fewer assets, including only one first-round pick in the next two years and a development system whose best players (Samuel Poulin, Nathan Legare, Pierre-Olivier Joseph) have yet to play a single NHL game and don’t exactly have a line of sure-fire NHLers behind them.
Of course, now the Penguins are in the running for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, which will be used on Alexis Lafreniere Monday night.
He would help a lot.
But relying on luck isn’t a plan, and the Penguins likely used all theirs up in the 2005 draft.
It’s not a pretty picture.
It never is when you lose frequently at the most important time of the year – and lose convincingly while you’re at it.