Yohe: Whatever Kyle Dubas does with the Penguins, it needs to be different

It’s 2024, which means it’s a presidential election year. This is perfect for the Penguins. Follow along with me.

During election years, we always hear about the necessity of change. Whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, an incumbent or challenger, you’ll hear about change. And more change. And more change.

This brings us to Kyle Dubas, who runs the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dubas would be a magnificent politician. He looks the part, he’s smart, quick on his feet and can handle a news conference like nobody’s business.

And make no mistake, for his Penguins, it’s time for change, and plenty of it.

Dubas decided to retain Mike Sullivan as his coach, and sure, the easiest change of all would have been axing him. In Dubas’ mind, though, that would’ve been foolish. He views Sullivan as one of hockey’s best coaches.

While changing coaches is the flavor of the month in hockey, it isn’t the only route.

Whatever Dubas does, he needs to do everything in his power to make the Penguins different — a younger version, perhaps a version that isn’t going to fancy itself as a Stanley Cup contender but one that will generate some hope for itself and its fans.

The majority of the Penguins’ troubles aren’t Dubas’ fault. He inherited a mess made largely by former GM Ron Hextall, and it wasn’t going to be an easy clean-up. It was always going to take years. Hextall gave away so many solid players for next to nothing. That’s not on Dubas. But it’s on him to fix it.

It’s also hardly Dubas’ fault that his superstars are aging. When next season begins, Sidney Crosby will be 37. Evgeni Malkin will be 38. Kris Letang will be 37. Erik Karlsson will be 34. Cores of that age don’t win championships. In fact, as we’ve learned, it’s a challenge for them to even make the postseason.

That isn’t Dubas’ fault, either.

I don’t even completely hold him responsible for last summer, though he made some mistakes. See Graves, Ryan.

Dubas had three weeks before the draft last season to get acclimated with the organization, develop a plan with almost no familiar staff around him and execute said plan. He made some good moves. He made one bad move. So it goes.

Things are a little different now. Dubas is surrounded by comfortable people. He’s had a year to get a feel for the team, the organization, the fan base and every other factor under the sun. He sat in his private booth and watched the Penguins make the same mistakes, over and over, this season. He saw so many players struggle. He saw his captain’s greatness become almost irrelevant because his teammates weren’t good enough to reciprocate even a fraction of his brilliance.

So, what does Dubas do?

It’s not an easy job, to be sure, but it would be criminal to essentially bring the same team back. Dubas is a smart guy. He knows better.

The Penguins’ biggest flaw last season was their power play. It was historically bad, which is really something when you consider that it primarily consisted of future Hall of Famers.

Dubas needs to find a player who can help that top power play. It doesn’t necessarily need to be another star. In fact, I’d suggest there are already too many stars on the top unit. Maybe it’s a real net-front guy. Maybe it’s an expert at the bumper position. Maybe it’s a pure goal scorer. Whatever the case may be, no one wants to see the same five players on the top play next season. Feel free to blame former power-play boss Todd Reirden for that unit’s inefficiency, but he certainly wasn’t the only problem.

Speaking of Reirden, the Penguins replaced him with David Quinn as one of Sullivan’s primary assistants. Fine. It’s a quality hire. The Penguins did not, however, assign Quinn to power-play duties just yet. We know he will run the blue line. Who will run the power play? I’d strongly suggest the Penguins bring in some new blood for that chore. I’m on record as saying I think Sullivan is a great coach, a Hall of Famer. Still, he was on the staff last season as the power play floundered. He didn’t have the answers then, so why would he now? This isn’t to say he isn’t a great coach. He is. Even great coaches sometimes need to be surrounded by a new voice.

The roster in general needs change, which isn’t particularly easy given that Hextall handed out no-movement clauses like they were candy. Dubas needs to get creative, if necessary, and find a way to revamp his roster.

I’d start in goal. He brought back Alex Nedeljkovic, which was a significant surprise, given Dubas’ almost defeated tone about the goaltender two months ago. I like Nedeljkovic. He’s solid. I also think Tristan Jarry is very talented, if not reliable. But why bring back the same duo? Was the Penguins’ goaltending their biggest problem last season? No. The friction between the Penguins and Jarry in April, though, was palpable. A goaltending controversy is coming. It’s inevitable. And it’s rarely a good thing.

As noted earlier, Dubas had some wins last season. I love the Lars Eller move. While it was scoffed at initially, the Jake Guentzel trade was an illustration of pretty good work from Dubas. Prospects arrived. Michael Bunting gave the Penguins just the juice they needed. It was a start.

But it needs to continue.

Dubas’ job is difficult, yes. Given that he’s been around for a year now, he’s learned so much, including that he isn’t the only smart hockey person in Pittsburgh. Penguins fans are educated. They see the situation for what it is. Championship expectations these days aren’t legitimate.

The citizens just want change. A fresh start. A merger of the old superstars with the young.

As constructed, the Penguins aren’t without their strengths, but they’re also painfully stale. They need new coaches, fresh talent, new faces and new strategy. They had a glorious run for a very long time. Those days are long gone.

The big names aren’t going anywhere, which is fine. No one wants that. But a new landscape is the only way things will get better.

(Photo: Joe Hrycych / NHLI via Getty Images)

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