Fixing a ‘Flawed Hockey Team’

“I think right now, we’re a flawed hockey team. We’ve got to shore up a lot of areas.”

Head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t mince words after his Penguins were on the wrong end of a 7-1 score in Tampa Bay on Saturday. It was their second loss of the humbling variety in just over two weeks, with the first, a 10-1 loss in Chicago, also coming on the back end of back-to-back games.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with back-to-backs,” Sullivan said. “I think it has to do with a mindset, and a willingness to play the game the right way.”

The 5-3-1 Penguins took Sunday off, reflected on their up-and-down start to the season, and decided they’d seen enough:

  • Of biding their time to acquire a more skilled, third-line center than Greg McKegg to offset the loss of Nick Bonino to free agency. Sunday, GM Jim Rutherford pulled the trigger on acquiring center Riley Sheahan, 25, from the Detroit Red Wings, in exchange for winger Scott Wilson and a swap of 2018 draft picks.
  • And of veteran netminder Antii Niemi, who arrived this summer to back up starter Matt Murray but lost all three of his starts, allowing 16 goals on 79 shots for a 7.50 goals-against average and .797 save percentage. Monday, Niemi was waived, then assigned to the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as goalie Casey DeSmith was recalled.

Rutherford had targeted Sheahan for months, with trade talks picking up recent days as the Red Wings needed to clear salary cap space. He has pedigree as a first-round draft pick of the Wings in 2010, going 21st overall. At 6-foot-3, 214 pounds, he also has size.

“He’s a heavy guy,” Rutherford said. “He can play against other teams’ top guys. He’s a strong skater and, down low, he can handle those bigger, stronger guys.”

And Sheahan has skill, with 36 points (13G, 23A) a few seasons ago that represent how he might be able to perform alongside more skilled linemates.

“He’s a proven guy,” Rutherford said. “He dropped off a little bit last year in his production, but there’s no reason he can’t get that back. You look at his overall record and he’s done it more than one year; there’s a good sample size there. He’s still a young guy [who] really should be just coming into his prime. He’s going to play with good players here, and I know he can strengthen our center ice position.”

At his first practice on Monday, Sheahan found himself centering two skilled Swedes – Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin, who played at the University of Michigan when Sheahan was at Notre Dame.

“It was a lot of fun,” Sheahan said. “Playing with some amazing players, obviously. Got to change the routine a bit and get used to the surroundings, but I’m really excited. And I have some friends here [Bryan Rust and Ian Cole] I played with at Notre Dame, so it’s nice to know some guys coming in.”

He’s learning the Penguins’ strategies and systems but, especially in his first games with his new team, he’ll focus on playing the style of game that got their interest in the first place.

“We’ll work with him along the way, but we know he’s a smart player,” Sullivan said. “He’s got aptitude for the game.”

“At the end of the day, it’s a game we’ve been playing a long time, so you’ve just got to make decisions out there and play to the best of [your] ability,” Sheahan said. “There’s going to be mistakes, and you’ve just got to adjust and stay positive. I’m excited to get started.”

As for Niemi, the Penguins hoped for a rebound from the 34-year-old netminder in his 10th NHL season. He was coming off of his worst year, where he posted a 3.30 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in 37 games for the Dallas Stars.

Niemi was partly a victim of circumstance, with his three starts coming on the back end of back-to-back situations where the team in front of him “simply didn’t play hard enough or well enough,” in Sullivan’s words. Still, that’s exactly when a team needs its backup to be reliable.

“It’s never an ideal circumstance, but that’s part of the challenge of that role on the team,” Sullivan said. “Would we like to put our goalies in the best possible scenarios to succeed? Yes, we would.”

For Niemi, that might involve time at the minor-league level if he hopes to get back to the NHL with the Penguins or another team.

“That would be a great option, to give him an opportunity to get in some ideal circumstances, build his confidence in an environment that’s not as high-stakes as the one we’re in here,” Sullivan said.

The Penguins return to the high stakes of regular-season action Tuesday, when they host the Edmonton Oilers. The 2-5 Oilers haven’t gotten off to the start they wanted, either, but facing a team led by Connor McDavid might provide some adrenaline for the inconsistent Penguins.

“We have to find a way, together as a group, to make sure we bring more consistent play to the table day in and day out, and we haven’t done that this year,” Sullivan said. “There are times we show a semblance of being a really good hockey team and being difficult to play against, and there are times we get away from it.

“I don’t think [the blowout losses] are an indication of the level of expectations for this group. We’re going to go back to work and try to get better.”