NEW YORK — Jeff Carter seemed to miss an assignment in his own zone. Brian Dumoulin made the wrong call on a penalty kill. Tristan Jarry didn’t make it to the third period.
It’s all happened before. It will probably all happen again.
It all happened to the Penguins on Saturday night when their game against the New York Rangers was still in doubt, which didn’t last long — just long enough for known culprits to commit more of the same mistakes they’ve been making for three months.
Final standings: Rangers 6, Penguins 0, and it wasn’t that close.
“There’s nothing to learn from that,” said Jason Zucker.
Coach Mike Sullivan called the defeat “humiliating”. He was also up for a question about Carter and Dumoulin – two veterans who have become piñatas to increasingly baffled fans.
“You guys like to bully certain guys, and you go to them all the time,” Sullivan said. “We respectfully disagree with you in many circumstances.
“When goals are scored, we look at a lot of details about how and why. The reality is that for the most part it’s more than one person when goals go into the back of the net.”
Sullivan has not won 400 games and does not have two Stanley Cup rings, because he is ignorant. He knows that part of a coach’s job is to protect players in adverse conditions.
Times are tough for the Penguins.
A reasonable person might disagree with his use of Carter and Dumoulin, or his attempt to rehabilitate Jarry (not physically) during a period when the Penguins can’t afford to give away points.
But Sullivan isn’t going to throw his players under the bus. That means distraction, denial and disagreement with members of the media and maybe even other people in his organization.
The point is, what are his other options anyway?
He did not put together this very flawed selection. He got just six high-end forwards, two reliable defenders and a goalie tandem that only one general manager would have entrusted, possibly the last combined elite season of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Those fundamental pieces of the greatest era in franchise history are all about dragging a hole-filled roster into the playoffs. Crosby, Malkin and Letang are the all-time greats in the middle of incredibly good seasons in their mid-thirties respectively.
They’re not big enough – not anymore – to overcome the shortcomings GM Ron Hextall made after keeping The Big Three together last summer. Nearly every move he made after getting Letang and then Malkin to take another sub-market contract to return has exploded in his face.
Whether Hextall gets a chance to fix this mess he’s made is a debate that should be ongoing among decision makers with Fenway Sports Group. It’s FSG’s franchise, whether they act like it or not.
However, the Penguins’ still somewhat new ownership group should know that fans accustomed to their hockey team vying for the Cup won’t take kindly – and certainly won’t stay – to a team so obviously flawed, or fail completely to do better by Crosby, Malkin and Letang.
That’s what Hextall did. He has failed the three most important players in franchise history not named Mario Lemieux.
Three of Hextall’s biggest busts were once again painfully obvious on Saturday night.
Carter appeared to miss a defensive assignment on the Rangers’ first goal. That would be the same Carter who has scored all three goals and six points in his past 32 games. He’s a minus-15 in those games.
Sullivan probably won’t scratch Carter. I don’t know of an NHL coach who would humiliate a two-time Cup winner by 400+ goals by giving him a healthy scratch.
Either way, the perception is that Carter is humbling himself despite being bumped to the fourth line and even though he has averaged fewer minutes over the past three games (8:28) than any other play during his Penguins tenure.
The 38-year-old Carter still has one season left on a two-year contract that Hextall handed him just over a year ago. Next season, he’ll hit $3.125 million in the salary cap and he can’t be bought out or traded because… who knows?
Hextall never explained why he handcuffed himself so he couldn’t maneuver with Carter’s contract. He left Sullivan to figure out what to do with Carter, then answer for it.
If Carter were the only problem for these penguins, maybe they could overcome his decline and shortcomings.
He’s not. He is far from it.
Hextall spent last summer trying to rebuild his defense corps. He signed Jan Rutta and traded for Jeff Petry, neither of whom played Saturday night due to injuries, and neither of whom made much of an impact in their first seasons in Pittsburgh.
Hextall tried Marcus Pettersson in the off-season but was unsuccessful. That failure was a blessing in disguise as Pettersson has developed into the only consistently adequate defender on the team other than Letang. (Pettersson suffered a lower body injury on Saturday night and Sullivan said after the game he was being evaluated by trainers.)
Hextall traded John Marino, a paycheck unless you buy Ty Smith as a future NHL star.
Few people in the NHL believe that Smith is an NHL caliber player. No one can say for sure.
Smith has not been able to play regularly for the Penguins due to Hextall’s mismanagement.
Then there is Dumoulin. He is the only defender Hextall did not try to move last summer, even though Dumoulin’s performances had slipped in previous seasons and his contract had only a year left.
At one point — let’s call them the glory days (2015-16 through 2017-18, when the Penguins won two titles and nine consecutive playoff series) — Dumoulin was a warrior-like, ideal complement for Letang on top defensive combination . Those days are gone like the wind, and Dumoulin has spent most of this season looking nothing like the invaluable piece he was on those great Penguins teams.
It is possible that Dumoulin had some commercial value last summer. By the trade deadline a few weeks ago, he had none. So Hextall didn’t even try to move it.
Instead, Hextall’s big move was to bring on board Mikael Granlund, who has made so little of an impression it’s almost forgotten that he’ll be counting $5 million on the cap over the next two seasons.
Back to Dumoulin inexplicably trying to pass a puck out of the defense zone on Saturday night after a late penalty kill in the first period. Unsurprisingly, his pass didn’t go away, the Rangers kept possession and sent another puck behind Jarry.
Dumoulin should have shot the puck across the ice.
He should have done a lot of things this season. Most of the time he tried and couldn’t. This time he didn’t even get the hard part right.
Then there’s Jarry, a number 1 goalkeeper in theory only.
He was pulled for the fourth time in 11 starts on Saturday night. He has produced a .863 save percentage and a 4.17 goals-against average in those starts.
Sometimes numbers tell the whole story. That’s true in Jarry’s case, as he has a save percentage of less than .900 in 14 starts since he suffered the first of two injuries that have limited his appearances since Jan. 2.
“You guys have been asking me these questions for the past few weeks and my answers haven’t changed — it is what it is,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to give him reps, help him get there under difficult circumstances.”
Jarry was also not healthy to play, except for Game 7 of a first-round loss to the Rangers last postseason. He played that one on a broken foot, to his credit.
The Penguins would have won that series – or so they think – if Jarry and/or backup Casey DeSmith had been healthy. They weren’t.
Hey, injuries happen.
In the previous postseason, Jarry was the Penguins worst player in a series they should have won against the Islanders. Also, DeSmith was unable to play in that series due to an injury.
Still, Hextall re-signed with DeSmith last summer and bet on Jarry to stay healthy, despite Jarry never playing in at least 60 games or winning a playoff series.
Of course, why look to the free agent market for an experienced back-up — you know, in case an injury-prone Jarry got injured and/or didn’t play well enough — in bringing DeSmith back for more time off during the summer months ?
Crosby, who rarely takes days off even in the summer, said everything you’d expect from the NHL’s top captain after another disheartening loss Saturday night. He argued against seeing this lopsided loss “as an example of how we’ve been playing lately”.
“I think we’ve been playing pretty good hockey lately,” said Crosby. “Tonight was tough.”
The Penguins aren’t in the best of business.
Crosby is the greatest player of his generation, so magnificent that he averaged at least a point per game in each of his 18 seasons. His old running mates, Malkin and Letang, will each join him with retired numbers in Pittsburgh, and likely the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Yes, they wanted to end their career where that career began. They also wanted to win.
That’s why they’ve again – and always have – taken less money to give their GMs a chance to surround them with teammates good enough to try for the Cup. Sometimes those GMs (Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford) swung and missed, but at least they always had the Penguins in the hunt.
Hextall inherited from Rutherford a roster that was on its way to a first-place finish in 2021. The Penguins finished third last season and then blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers.
This week, Hextall’s Penguins appeared in New York City and embarrassed themselves in “the world’s most famous arena.” They lost twice by a combined score of 10-2, dropping to 15-16-5 since a 3-2 home win over the Rangers way back on December 20.
“I think there are many teams that can win the Stanley Cup, and we are one,” Hextall said on March 3.
His Penguins have since won three games and may only have 13 left to play if things continue to go this way for the past three months.
(Top photo: Brad Penner / USA Today)