If you started watching Pittsburgh Penguins hockey in the Sidney Crosby era, you missed the late 1980s, when a young Mario Lemieux captained the team but the organization was still a couple of years – and a significantly better front office – away from its first Stanley Cups.
The Civic Arena fans were restless, and they weren’t shy in letting head coach Gene Ubriaco hear about it. So much so that the Penguins created a tunnel under the stands, so Ubriaco could get to the bench without having to walk across the ice.
The Penguins have had some lean years since then, but it’s been a long time since the home fans raised their voices in protest quite like they did Thursday night.
Late in the second period of the team’s latest disheartening loss – a 7-2 beating by the Edmonton Oilers that wasn’t even that close – the “Fire Hextall” chants began in the upper bowl of PPG Paints Arena. The chants returned on and off throughout the night, persisting even through game staff’s attempts to change the tone to something a little more upbeat.
“I understand the fans’ frustration,” said the subject of the chants, second-year GM Ron Hextall, in an atypical, pre-trade deadline press conference Friday. “We have high expectations as well, and we haven’t met them. So, I totally get it. When you’re a GM, you know what you’re signing up for. We work in the public eye, and they pay good money to come to the rink and certainly have the right to chant and say whatever they choose. Criticism is part of the business.”
“I’ve heard boos before; it’s not something that’s happened very often, but you definitely don’t want to hear that,” said captain Crosby. “I think it was a tough night for everybody, and we don’t like putting on a performance like that in front of them. They pay their ticket and they want to see better.”
The frustration isn’t surprising when you consider that much of the Penguins’ fanbase hasn’t experienced anything quite like this before. For those who know only the Crosby era, this is a decisive low point.
- Currently at No. 5 in a two-team Eastern Conference Wild Card race, it’s the latest the Penguins have been out of a playoff spot since Crosby’s rookie year, putting a postseason streak dating back to 2007 in jeopardy.
- They’ve lost nine straight against Metro Division opponents and their last four overall.
- Their projected cap space is $18,430, which doesn’t bode especially well for a splashy trade deadline next Friday (via CapFriendly).
- A team that used to make a habit of finding ways to win is now finding ways to lose. The Penguins trail only the San Jose Sharks in come-from-ahead losses, dropping 14 games where they’ve led by one goal, four where they’ve led by two, and two where they’ve led by three or more goals (via MoreHockeyStats).
- Some of their biggest disappointments this season are tied to multi-year, expensive deals, like forwards Kasperi Kapanen, who was waived Friday (one more year at $3.2M), Jeff Carter (one more year at $3.125M) and Brock McGinn (two more years at $2.75M).
- On the back end, defensemen Jeff Petry (two more years at $6.25M, second-most behind Crosby) and Jan Rutta (two more years at $2.75M) have proven unwise investments for a cap-strapped team, and haven’t outperformed the D they replaced at roughly the same combined cap hit in Mike Matheson ($4.875M) and John Marino ($4.4M).
- In goal, the decision to bring back tandem Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith has been a problem. Backup DeSmith hasn’t been good enough, with a 10-12-4 record, 3.28 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. The team is significantly better when starter Jarry is in net (16-7-5, 2.82 GAA, .916 SV%) but, as he’s dealt with and compensated for a reported hip injury this season, his status down the stretch and into the postseason, if the Penguins find themselves there, is far from a sure thing.
Hextall said he still believes Pittsburgh can make the playoffs and that he’ll try to improve the club by the March 3 trade deadline, but won’t mortgage the future for a short-term rental. That’s probably a good thing for a roster that, if the Penguins are being honest with themselves, is far more than a player or two away from making a serious run.
“Our intent is to continue to try to make this team better, this year and years beyond. We made that commitment last summer with our core [re-signing Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang]. Those guys have played well,” Hextall said. “I guess the hardest part about our team right now is the volatility. It’s a tough one, quite frankly, to put a finger on. We had that streak with 20 games where we were really good. And we’ve had some six, seven-game streaks where we haven’t been very good. On some nights you ask yourself, what team are we?”
Thursday against the Oilers, the answer was undoubtedly that the Penguins have taken a significant step backward of late – a fact head coach Mike Sullivan acknowledged in those very words.
“We’ve got to find a way to get this thing going in the right direction,” Sullivan said. “The reality is the solutions are inside the room, and we’ve got to rely on one another. I think it starts with an attitude and a certain resilience to our group. We’ve got to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get back in the fight. And that’s the message. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”
Crosby certainly isn’t feeling sorry for his club, and flatly rejected the notion that the Penguins are verging on unfamiliar territory.
“There’s lots of season left, and we’re fighting for a playoff spot,” Crosby said. “Ideally we’d be in a better position, but we still have a chance to make the playoffs. It’s the NHL; you’ve got to compete and earn your way. We’re not in a spot right now but we still have an opportunity to make it, so I’m not going to talk about it that way because that’s not the situation. We can control our own destiny here.”