The maddening own goal that Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin inflicted upon the Pittsburgh Penguins in a disastrous third-period against the Arizona Coyotes on Monday night appeared to leave Sidney Crosby in disbelief. After he watched Letang send the puck backward to Malkin then Malkin deflect it into an open net, Crosby reached over his head and rested his stick across his shoulder pads as he skated across the ice and to the visitors bench at Mullett Arena.
That image embodies the current state of the Penguins.
They are good in some games. They are bad in some games. They are in the mix for a playoff spot.
They are not a Stanley Cup contender.
Nothing that happens over a couple of home games before the All-Star break, or a couple of weeks after it, is going to turn them into one. Only nine months into a seven-year contract as hockey boss, general manager Kyle Dubas shouldn’t proceed as though he can transform his first Penguins team into one capable of winning a championship.
He can, however, aggressively begin the hard job of setting up the Penguins for future success. Perhaps sooner than anybody would predict. Maybe even next season.
Success for the Penguins is defined as contending for the Cup. And they haven’t won a playoff series since 2018.
Dubas inherited a team that finished 21-22-7 in its final 50 games last season. The best he could do, despite a bevy of offseason moves, is build a team that is 21-17-6 after 44 games this season.
When those are the results, who cares about models and metrics?
The Penguins have played to a .527 points percentage over their last 90 games — an 86-point pace over a full regular season. They’ve shown what they are, and it’s not close to good enough to win the Cup.
The only logical next step is for Dubas to make moves and get them to that level.
That does not mean a full-on rebuild. The Penguins won’t rebuild with Crosby, and Crosby isn’t going anywhere.
He does want to win the Cup a fourth time. He wants to do that with the Penguins, and he’s still great enough that his wish is within reach. It will require him to not only trust Dubas but privately approve and publicly support necessary moves that likely will make this another spring without postseason hockey in Pittsburgh.
This dynamic — Crosby producing at historic levels as he approaches two decades in the league, but the Penguins not matching his excellence — is said to place Dubas in an impossible position. How can he, say, trade Jake Guentzel and do right by Crosby?
Quite easily, actually. It starts with Dubas having a tough conversation with Crosby about what should be an easy decision.
Guentzel is on pace for a third consecutive season of at least 35 goals, and the Penguins might end up missing the postseason twice over that span. At 29, Guentzel is playing on the final season of a contract he has vastly outperformed — and Dubas, who inherited no prospect system and only a few serviceable young players, can create a bidding war among actual Cup contenders looking to rent a proven playoff performer.
Dubas should sell Guentzel as soon as another GM offers the right deal. While pitting other GMs against one another for Guentzel, Dubas should also actively seek trades for any players besides Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Marcus Pettersson.
He should listen to any inquiries about Pettersson, too.
There are complications, of course, in the form of movement clauses and cap space. GMs are paid, and in Dubas’ case quite well ($5 million annually), to work through those details for the betterment of their franchise.
The Penguins will not win any of these deals, at least not in terms of talent-for-talent swaps.
That’s fine. Dubas can’t afford to think too much about what will happen the rest of this season. He has a chance to add assets — any are better than none — and create more cap space going into a transitional offseason. He can weaponize any draft picks, prospects and cap space to execute a plan for next season and beyond.
He wasn’t afforded that luxury upon taking control of the Penguins last June. Years of mismanagement forced a quick pivot and resulted in some big swings.
Dubas was right to take those swings.
The best Penguins GMs — Craig Patrick, Ray Shero, Jim Rutherford — always took big swings. Patrick had Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Shero and Rutherford had Crosby, Malkin and Letang. Any GM who isn’t swinging big every season with players of that stature is derelict of duty.
Trading Guentzel would be a big swing. Hitting a reset button by also moving Reilly Smith before the deadline and possibly Tristan Jarry in the offseason would be big swings. Conceding defeat on the Erik Karlsson experiment would be a big swing, though Dubas might need quite a few hacks to pull off any deal.
Moving on from your best winger, an established forward, a goalie who was just given a five-season commitment, and the greatest offensive defenseman since Paul Coffey would be the hockey equivalent of Aaron Judge aiming for the short porch at Yankee Stadium, or at least as close as Dubas can get.
He should dig in and swing away on others while working the count on Guentzel.
He should do so as part of a multi-layered plan to infuse his organization with futures while also providing Crosby, Malkin and Letang with a roster the next couple of seasons that is younger and deeper, with players who want to be in Pittsburgh and are willing to follow Crosby’s lead instead of marching to their tune, with teammates who push back more often, and with cap-space flexibility to add if the team proves itself more than merely a fringe playoff contender.
The Penguins won’t have a first-round pick in 2024 because of the Karlsson deal with the San Jose Sharks. They also are without multiple picks — a third and fifth in 2024, a second in 2025 — because of past trades. Their best prospect, Brayden Yager, is an undersized forward at least a couple of seasons away from making the NHL roster.
The Penguins need draft capital, more prospects and younger legs. Dubas has a chance to add that over the next several months.
The cap is finally going up after years of stagnancy. Even with a couple of retained salaries already on the books, the Penguins project for somewhere around $14 million in space. Dubas can create a lot more, and he should.
The Penguins haven’t had tangible cap space for a GM to play with in the offseason since 2010. They didn’t need it as much then as now because Crosby, Malkin, and Letang (among others) were entering their primes.
They’re not prime players anymore. Even Crosby, great as he’s been this season, isn’t what he was once upon a time.
He needs more help. So do Malkin and Letang.
The guess here is that the Big Three are aware it isn’t working. Dubas owes them only an explanation for the direction he wants to take. They deserve to know how the plan will make the Penguins better next season.
Then, the call is theirs — individually or collectively — whether they want to be a part of it. If not, they owe it to the Penguins to say they want out publicly.
A lot of people presume Crosby, Malkin and Letang will chafe at a plan like this. I don’t.
Crosby, Malkin and Letang’s legacies are set. They don’t need to chase titles somewhere else. They want to go after another one where they are already living legends.
They aren’t the cut-and-run types. Never have been.
Give them a little credit for how much they care about the Penguins crest they’ve worn for their entire adult lives.
Dubas should share his plan with his franchise stalwarts. He should ask their thoughts. He should also act independently.
He’s going to be judged by what happens next season and beyond in Pittsburgh. They won’t.
(Photo of Kyle Dubas: Pittsburgh Penguins)