On paper, the 2021 Pittsburgh Penguins were as deep of a roster as any Penguins team that I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yes that includes the teams that won back to back Stanley Cups. They had center depth that could match up with anyone and four lines that Head Coach Mike Sullivan could roll with confidence. The team also had defensive pairings that just meshed well together. Away from each other? You would see some blips on the radar and erratic play, but they were able to find combinations that worked well together and we saw that down the stretch. What they weren’t able to find was average goaltending during their playoff series vs the New York Islanders. That’s really the focal point of this whole thing, and it should be.
I hate to harp on the play of one player too much in what is a team oriented game, but in this case how can you not? Prior to the series, I had said that I felt like the only way the Islanders could beat the Penguins if is Tristan Jarry didn’t deliver in his first postseason as “The Guy”. It would be an understatement to just say that he played poorly in his first real taste of postseason hockey. Historically speaking, it was one of the worst performances by a Penguins goalie in playoff history. Rivaling the Fleury collapses in the early 2010s.
This is just a personal opinion, but I’ve always viewed goalies in hockey as the most mentally challenging position in all of sports. You need to have the mental aspect in order as much if not more than the talent. At his best, Jarry is a confident goaltender who gets to the top of his crease to challenge the shooter and can act as another defenseman in a way due to his ability to handle the puck and help break it out. At his worst, you see a goalie who is far too deep in his own net with zero self confidence.
We saw it early in the season and here and there down the stretch as well. Mike Sullivan stuck with him for the entire playoff series, despite his struggles though I doubt that would’ve been the case if Casey DeSmith were healthy. Max Legace was the backup for the duration of the series and never saw game action.
The Penguins dominated play for a lot of their series vs the Islanders. They generated a ton of chances, while giving up few. Over the course of 60+ minutes, the other team is going to get a good look here and there. The problem for the Pens is they were never getting a save whenever they would make a mistake. It also doesn’t help that Ilya Sorokin turned into *insert all-time great goalie’s name here* during this series. The two Penguins wins came with Semyon Varlamov in net.
We’ve seen the Penguins run into a hot goalie several times in recent memory and Sorokin was no different. His play in one net going against Jarry’s in the other net was night and day difference and the reason for the outcome of this series. The Penguins season came to an end due to goaltending, both for and against and it really is that simple.
Four In A Row
This marks four straight playoff series losses for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. I really don’t like the idea of lumping all these playoff losses together, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. In years past, the deficiencies of the team were throughout the lineup. There was a lack of depth up front and defensemen who were black holes in their own end unable to push play up the ice. This year just felt different.
It’s a lot easier to pinpoint one particular area where the Penguins came up short in. Do I want or think the Penguins need to make several large scale changes this off-season? No. Will they? Maybe. Like it or not, when you start to stack playoff losses in the manner the Penguins have, there is going to be a call for drastic changes. With a new front office in town, there are a lot of things on the table. They don’t have ties to, well anybody really. GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Ops. Brian Burke went out and acquired Jeff Carter (My dad) at the trade deadline, but that was really the extent of their roster tinkering.
All signs point to Head Coach Mike Sullivan being back in the fold for another season, which I am fully on board with. He should win the Jack Adams award for his work this past season. Despite the games lost and not having some of his best players for large stretches, he lead the Penguins to a division title. Franchise stalwarts Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang both appear to be poised to return on the last year of their respective deals as well.
Regardless of if you feel that is for the best aside, we know the captain and ownership want them here and they want to be here. Having a NMC and a 12 team NTC respectively slim the chances of either being moved that much more. It would take them wanting out and I just don’t see that happening. So, where could we see a roster shakeup take place?
The expansion draft this summer is first and foremost when it comes to roster shakeup that in my opinion. The team reportedly plans to protect Jeff Carter (for some reason), which changes what I thought they’d do. I love Jeff Carter and am excited for him to be back in the fold for another season. With that said, I don’t think protecting a 36 year old with one year left on his deal is sound use of a protection spot. You could see guys like Jason Zucker, Teddy Blueger and Jared McCann left unprotected should they go this route. Either way the team is going to lose a valuable asset from their roster that is going to need replaced.
Will the Pittsburgh Penguins look to move Bryan Rust in a contract year approaching age 30? Will they look to send a message and move Jake Guentzel? John Marino’s name has been brought up as well, though he just signed a brand new deal. What will they look to do about the goaltending situation? They didn’t sign Jarry to an extension, Rutherford did. Do they feel comfortable with him to even bring him back next year? Still view him as a #1 and just want a veteran to go along with him? We are already hearing rumors about Hextall having interest in a Jonathan Quick reunion (Don’t). Malkin and Letang extensions are also on the table, but will either one happen?
Like I said, all options are on the table with Hextall and Burke about to begin their first off-season at the helm. It’s a fun, yet terrifying thing to think about and it shouldn’t be happening this soon.
A Fun Season
The Pittsburgh Penguins were poised for another deep playoff run in the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era and it came to a screeching halt due to them being unable to get average play in net. Some of these discussions as far as shakeups shouldn’t even be happening and wouldn’t be if Tristan Jarry had played better. These other discussions are taking place way earlier than they should be. We should still be watching our Pittsburgh Penguins play playoff hockey, the goalie is the reason we aren’t and there is really not much else to discuss. Despite all of this, it was a very fun season and I enjoyed watching this team. I hope for the most part, we see the same roster come back for another go for the ’21-22 season.