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Pittsburgh Penguins heading in a new direction

(Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

At first glance, the timing seemed weird.

And two days earlier, they had surged back with three third period goals in a come-from-behind victory in Colorado against the Avalanche. Not exactly full meltdown mode and, thus, not normally when you’d expect the head coach to be fired.

That’s exactly what happened though, as Mike Johnston was let go just 28 games into his second season behind the Pittsburgh bench.

Was it the right move? Only time will tell, of course. But a strong case can certainly be made that the Pens were in need of a change. Yes, the previous two games had been fine, but a broader look at the schedule reveals they had won just two of their last seven. And they had only managed back-to-back wins once since Nov. 6. That’s not exactly the mark of a Stanley Cup contender.

Which is exactly what this organization wants to be. And that’s the backdrop that needs to be considered when evaluating this move. Yes, this roster has flaws. And no, Pittsburgh hasn’t reached the Cup Final since winning it all more than six years ago. But Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still on the roster. They’re in their primes, in fact. And when you have special talents like that at your disposal, you need gear all your energy toward winning. Now.

That’s why the Penguins went out and got Phil Kessel in the summer. This window won’t stay open forever, and they’ve got some serious ground to make up before they’re back in the conversation with perennial contenders like the Kings, Blackhawks and Rangers. Still, with Crosby and Malkin — not to mention Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang — shouldn’t they at least be making a strong push up the mountain again?

With all that in mind, something just wasn’t right through 28 games. Sure, the Pens were five games over .500. But they’ve been trending down in the standings, falling behind the upstart New Jersey Devils for fourth in the Metro over the weekend. And — perhaps more than anything else — they just haven’t looked like the Pittsburgh Penguins this year.

That’s where Mike Sullivan comes in. The new bench boss brings a little more NHL experience to the table than Johnston did, playing in 709 career games, serving as an assistant for four teams from 2007-13 and even taking the reins as the head coach of the Boston Bruins for two seasons. Will that experience suddenly jolt Pittsburgh back up the standings? Again, only time will tell. But it probably can’t hurt, and the Pens needed to try something.

Priority No. 1 on Sullivan’s to-do list will be to help this group re-establish a team identity. Are they a defense-first club? Absolutely not, but they are thin enough on the blue line that they can’t afford to just throw caution to the wind and rely on their defensemen to clean up any and all mistakes. If they had six healthy Letangs back there, maybe that would work. They don’t though. At the moment, they don’t even have one healthy Letang.

That means they will have to direct some attention to playing a collective defensive system, at times, if they want to actually win hockey games. But you also need to play to your strengths in this league, and Pittsburgh’s strength should be scoring goals. Why have a Crosby and a Malkin and a Kessel if you’re just going to stifle their creativity? It’s not easy to score goals in this league. If you have the weapons to be creative and put the puck in the net, you should probably let them do their thing.

(Icon Sportswire)

(Icon Sportswire)

To that end, Sullivan has already said he plans on instilling a more aggressive mindset. For all their firepower, the Penguins rank 27th in the NHL with 2.31 goals per game right now. A year ago, they sat 19th with 2.65 goals per game. In the three seasons prior to that though, they were ranked fifth, first and first. This lineup was assembled with the intention of lighting the lamp. And if that’s how you’ve constructed your core, you need to embrace who you are. Some teams were built to grind out 2-1 wins. Pittsburgh is better suited for 4-3 games.

That’s not all on the man behind the bench, though. Maybe a new mindset helps, and maybe the simple fact that a new coach is in town will serve as a wake-up call on some level. At the end of the day, the players are still the ones that need to put the puck in the net.

Malkin has been fine, notching 14 goals — essentially one every other contest. No one else has even reached double digits. To put that in perspective, the normally-offensively-challenged Devils already have three guys in double figures.

The real issue just might be secondary scoring. True, Crosby and Kessel have not performed up to the expectations that they themselves have built up over their careers to this point, but they haven’t been bad either. And they’re certainly the type of players that could thrive if Sullivan is able to put them in better positions.

Nobody behind that top trio even has more than five goals, and that simply won’t cut it. Five goals at this point in the year projects out to just under 15 over the course of 82 games. Nobody’s getting where the Penguins want to go with all but three players putting up fewer than 15 tallies.

Some of those numbers should improve once Letang is able to return. As should the power play, which is currently sitting at 28th in the league (15.3 percent). Letang won’t be able to instantly fix everything though, and he’s been hit harder by injuries than almost anyone in the NHL over the last couple years, so they can’t just pin all their hopes on him. But having him back would give them a puck-moving defenseman with the ability to trigger the offense at an elite level when he’s at his best. That’s almost exactly what they’re missing right now.

So does this move put Pittsburgh over the top? No, but it could prove to be a big step in the right direction if everything goes according to plan. And Monday’s addition of Trevor Daley — who struggled mightily in his limited time with Chicago, but has shown himself to be a top-four D-man with an offensive flair throughout his career — might help too.

Penguins fans will quickly point to the fact that the last time the organization made a midseason coaching change was during the 2008-09 campaign, when they cut ties with Michel Therrien and added Dan Byslma. A couple months later, they were hoisting the Cup. There’s still plenty of work to be done before they get to that point again, but it’s certainly the goal. It has to be.

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