Letang Cleanout Day

‘A Quick and Bitter Ending’ for the Penguins

The Penguins outplayed the New York Islanders for at least four, maybe five games of their six-game series. They dominated Games 5 and 6 by a wide margin.

Friday, though, the Penguins were facing reporters’ questions via Zoom after their locker clean-outs and exit interviews at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, while the Islanders prepared for round 2 and the Boston Bruins.

“I think we carried the play most of the series, but it’s a fine line between winning and losing,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “We were not able to get that extra goal or be able to deny them a tying goal. I thought we played really well as a team. We were scoring goals; our special teams were doing well. It’s a fine margin and we fell on the wrong side of it.”

In a series that ultimately came down to goaltending, the Islanders had a better option when Semyon Varlamov allowed seven goals in two games, choosing to stick with Ilya Sorokin. In four games, Sorokin allowed nine goals, 1.7 fewer than the goals expected over that span.

On the other side of the rink, the Penguins’ Tristan Jarry allowed 21 goals in the six games he played, 7.9 more than expected. But backup Casey DeSmith, dealing with a groin injury, was unavailable, and Maxime Lagace, with 18 career NHL games to his credit, was unlikely to be an option other than in an emergency situation. When Jarry faltered, the Penguins didn’t have an alternative.

After a rough start in Game 1, Jarry had a lights-out Game 2 but, with an .888 overall save percentage, simply wasn’t good enough throughout the series. He never recovered from the stunning gaffe he made in double overtime of Game 5, putting the game-winning goal right on the stick of the Islanders’ Josh Bailey.

And a season defined by depth and resilience, one that felt like it had the makings of something special, ended the same way as the past three – with an early exit.

“A quick and bitter ending to the year,” said forward Bryan Rust.

“It still stings, and it’s something we didn’t expect,” said forward Brandon Tanev. “You can say a lot of things but, at the end of the day, we just didn’t get the job done. I think that’s all you can say and it’s unfortunate for the result, because we did have a great team and we all thought we were going to go for a deep run here.”

But they didn’t, and that’s not acceptable by Pittsburgh Penguins standards. Combine that with the rapidly closing Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Letang window to try to win one more Stanley Cup, a new front office in GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Ops Brian Burke, and a stated desire to get bigger and tougher to keep up with teams like the Islanders and the overall heavier direction of the game, and there will be changes this offseason.

The big three

Crosby is locked up through 2024-25. Malkin and Letang are both entering the final year of their contracts, and both were among the Penguins’ top playoff performers, Malkin while playing through a significant knee injury. Penguins fans looking for a Malkin- or Letang-sized splash in a roster revamp are likely to be disappointed, as both are likely to return.

“This is a business; it’s not up to me to decide those things,” Letang said. “Like I’ve said in the past, me, Geno and Sid want to finish as Penguins. We truly believe in ourselves and we think we have a lot to offer.

“I don’t think you can say that this year we didn’t have a great year. We finished first in [what] some people say is the hardest division. We faced a great opponent in the first round and I thought we carried the play most of the series. I think there’s questions to be answered, and I’m not in charge of those, but I thought we had a great team. I still strongly believe in this core of players.”

The top line

One candidate to move on could be a high-caliber forward like Rust, also coming into the final year of a four-year deal that carried a $3.5M cap hit. Rust is coming off of the two best offensive seasons of his career and has developed into a well-rounded player who’s likely to have priced himself out of the Penguins’ budget next summer. Exploring his trade value now might be a smart option.

“I love it here. I’ve been here my whole career and wouldn’t want to go anywhere; I want to win here and be here. This has been home for me,” Rust said. As a husband and father to newborn son Hunter, born Sunday, though, he’ll be looking to maximize the dollars and term in that next deal. “As of a few days ago, I got some big priorities and family comes first for me,” he added. “I’m going to make every decision with them and for them and do what’s best for us.”

Crosby’s other winger, Jake Guentzel, is signed through 2023-24, with a modified no-trade-clause in his last two years, and likely isn’t going anywhere. But his 5’11, 180-lb. frame took a beating during the Islanders series, and that clearly hasn’t escaped him – along with the fact that the new front office is likely to be looking for more bulk up front.

“Strength training,” Guentzel said of his plans for the offseason. “Ready to go and physically get stronger. For me, it’s just exciting to get in the weight room. I’ve got to get better overall. This left a sour taste in my mouth and I just know I’ve got to be a lot better.”

Guentzel outshot and outchanced all of his Penguins teammates throughout the series, but managed only two points (1G, 1A) in six games.

“It’s just the game of hockey sometimes; it’s why the game’s so fun,” he said. “Sometimes you’re feeling it and everything’s going in; sometimes it’s not going to find a way in the net. I thought I had chances, had shots. I’ve got to find a better way to produce and do my job there; I take a lot of responsibility for that. I let a lot of people down. I’ve just got to find a way to put the puck in the net, make plays and be better there. It hurts.”

The Penguins are also likely to lose a talented member of their forward group – Jared McCann and Zach Aston-Reese are possibilities – to Seattle in the expansion draft, and may try to shed a contract like Jason Zucker’s, who has two years remaining at $5.5M per year.

In the net and behind the bench

The last player to face the media was the one who’s likely had the toughest few days.

“Obviously it didn’t go the way I wanted, and I think it’s just [about] learning from it and getting better,” Jarry said. “I think just being able to learn from that experience; that was my first time playing in postseason games consecutively. Being able to learn from that, learn from the goals I let in, learn from the mistakes that I had, I think that’ll make me a better person and a better goalie. I think those experiences you can hold with you for life, and I think that’s something I can reflect on over the summer and come back better next year from.”

As to whether he’ll come back next year as the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie, Jarry said that’s out of his control. “Having a good summer, just pushing myself and coming back as the best version of myself, is all I can do.”

Head coach Mike Sullivan is also signed through 2023 and, with the pandemic-related losses teams have incurred alone, that’s not something they’re likely to take lightly. If Sullivan does return, he’s likely to have to make some changes to the Penguins’ speed-first style to adapt to an evolving roster – and an evolving game.

“As a coaching staff, what we try to do is put together a game plan that gives the group of players the best chance to win,” Sullivan said. “Based on the group of players we have here in Pittsburgh, the game plan that this coaching staff has implemented is based on that very thing. And the other aspect of it is the evolution of the game itself and where the game is going. I think the roster can evolve and so can styles of play to make sure we’re putting together a game plan that plays to our strengths.”

How would he assess the season, and his own performance, overall?

“I thought the team made some great strides this year,” Sullivan said. “The fact that we won our division is suggestive of that. We fell short of our ultimate goal, and that’s disappointing from all of our standpoints. But this team played a lot of good hockey and it goes back to the depth we had, and the depth that was challenged all year long through the injuries at all the respective positions. They’re a great group of players; it’s unfortunate that we didn’t reach our ultimate goal.

“Ultimately you get judged on your success. Our performance in the regular season, I would have to think it would be acceptable. But we have higher expectations in Pittsburgh, we have higher expectations inside our room, and we didn’t ultimately live up to that. And we all have to take ownership for it.”