Yohe: It’s time for Kyle Dubas to unleash his plan, whatever that may be

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PITTSBURGH — Bashing the Pittsburgh Penguins is easy right now. Talk about low-hanging fruit.

Let’s instead look at the big picture.

It’s time for Kyle Dubas to assert himself. Did you see all of those empty seats in the third period at PPG Paints Arena in the late stages of the Penguins’ 5-2 humbling at the hands of the Florida Panthers? Did you also notice how disturbingly lifeless the Penguins looked? How overmatched they appeared to be? How fragile?

I don’t know what Dubas’ plan is. From everything I’ve been able to absorb, I think he’s needed significant time to develop one. He thought his Penguins would be better than they’ve been this season. Though expectations might have been slightly higher in Pittsburgh than they were around the hockey world for these Penguins, they should be better than this. But they aren’t.

Here’s what we know right now (brace yourselves):

• The Penguins haven’t scored more than three goals in a game since Jan. 8.
• Since the NHL All-Star Break, the Penguins have eight goals in four games.
• The Erik Karlsson experience has been a flop.
• Ryan Graves has been something of a disaster.
• The bottom six can’t score … at all.
• Evgeni Malkin reverted to his old trick of getting fired up by challenging himself in a meeting with reporters and was then invisible again.
• Sidney Crosby has been oddly quiet since the NHL All-Star Game.
• Things are so bad for Rickard Rakell that his monthly goal was correctly wiped out by a high stick on the puck ruling.
• Bryan Rust just isn’t himself, and I suspect he isn’t healthy.
• Reilly Smith isn’t the guy who was an impactful player in Vegas.
• The power play was booed out of the building Wednesday, which was the most polite way the paying citizens could have responded.
• Jake Guentzel, their best trade chip and one of their best players, left with an injury, and I didn’t love his body language in the aftermath.

We could go on and on. You’re some of the best fans in hockey. You watch the games and see all of the items that are bewildering these Penguins.

So the puck is on Dubas’ stick now.

He has many options, all of which will upset some portion of the fans. Let’s not ignore this. He isn’t just the general manager but is also the president of hockey operations. Hockey teams don’t run without fans. The Penguins’ fans are as spoiled as they are loyal, which is to say they’re very spoiled but also incredibly loyal. Still, the boos are becoming a nightly thing at PPG Paints Arena. The fans are growing restless, and they deserve some answers, too.

Here are Dubas’ options:

• Blow it to smithereens. Trade everyone. Trade Guentzel and get a haul. See if Vegas wants Smith back. Surely there will be a taker for Lars Eller. Maybe someone will even take a sniff at Karlsson. Rust? Rakell? Alex Nedeljkovic would draw interest.

Dubas needs to speak with his captain before choosing this option. He’s not just a hockey player. He’s Sidney Crosby, and the Penguins would be horrified if he eventually finished his career elsewhere. I’ve not heard that this is on Crosby’s mind, but if you’re Dubas, you still have to gauge how much you can blow this team up while keeping Crosby in Pittsburgh.

• Blow it up, with the intention of contending in the 2024-25 season. This is tricky but might be where Dubas is leaning. It’s hard to have a complete rebuild when Crosby is on your roster, and it’s not like the Penguins don’t want Crosby on their roster moving forward.

This would entail the Penguins punting on this season but reloading, not rebuilding, over the summer.

• Make some deals to help the Penguins get better immediately with the hope of righting the ship into the postseason. This seems like the most far-fetched of the options at the moment, but I suppose we can’t discount it. Look at all the money that was spent last summer. This is an organization that’s trying to win right now.

• Do nothing.

Doing nothing, of course, would make absolutely no sense.

I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Dubas for being so quiet this season. He deserved some time to analyze this group. Remember, he was hired a month before July 1 last year. Sure, he gets paid the big bucks to make the best decisions, but it was also quite a whirlwind for him, and he didn’t exactly inherit a dynamite roster.

It’s OK that he’s bided his time this season. Who could blame him? Would it have been wise to blow this team up in November, only a month into the season, when it started slowly? I don’t think so. As noted above, the Penguins were aggressive last summer and intended to win. Old teams usually start the season slowly.

The Penguins started to play better around the holidays. But were they so convincingly good that Dubas should have sold even more of the farm to make them better? You can make an argument that the answer is yes, but with what ammunition? No one wants the Penguins’ prospects. And they don’t have many draft picks to deal in the first place.

Yes, Dubas’ team has been extremely difficult to figure out all season. That’s becoming a past-tense reality, however.

These Penguins might not be a mystery anymore. Not after what we saw Wednesday. Not after what we’ve seen for a while now. They’re just not good.

The Penguins aren’t making the playoffs. Look at their place in the standings. Take a look at their schedule in March and April. There’s no reasonable way to conclude they’ll be in the postseason.

There was a lifeless nature to their performance that was particularly troubling Wednesday. They hadn’t played since Saturday. It could easily be argued that it was the Penguins’ biggest game of the season, given how their previous trip went and how much ground they have to make up on the rest of the Eastern Conference.

It took them more than nine minutes to register a shot on goal. That’s not winning hockey. That’s not a team that’s going anywhere.

There was no visible passion. There was no intensity. And, make no mistake, it’s not that the Penguins don’t care. Oh, they care very much. They’re as prideful as it gets. When you see a team displaying no indications of intensity and passion, even though you know they care and are trying, well, you’ve got yourself a serious problem.

It’s up to Dubas, now. He’s an intelligent man, but he’s never been in a position like this. I’d wager to say no one has been in a position like this. Crosby is still great, far greater than hockey legends at his age tend to be. Fenway Sports Group has a lot of money. It will keep spending and isn’t overly big on rebuilds in general. So keep trying to win, right?

On the other hand, these Penguins are toast and everyone knows it. They aren’t anywhere close to being a Cup contender. This organization has always measured itself by championships, which is admirable. It hasn’t won a playoff series in six years.

So, what does Dubas do?

I don’t know, because frankly, there’s no simple answer to that question. But it’s time for him to do something. What we’re seeing now isn’t acceptable. He needs to send that message.

And remember this: Dubas signed a seven-year contract to run these Penguins. He’s in this for the long haul. He’ll be here longer than anyone we’re talking about. The Big Three? Mike Sullivan? They’re Penguins legends, but Dubas’ tenure will surely outlast them, which makes his vision — whatever it might be — the most important facet of a season and a team that is heading nowhere.

I think it’s highly unlikely Dubas can rescue this season. This team’s performance speaks for itself, and this group doesn’t deserve any more patience.

It’s time for Dubas to assert himself. It’s his team. It’s his franchise. He’s no dummy. He surely sees this team for what it is. Dubas needs to come out of hibernation and show us how he’s going to make things better, if not in the future, then down the road.

It’s time.

(Photo of Florida’s Aaron Ekblad celebrating his goal in the second period: Justin Berl / Getty Images)

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