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Perfection or Lose

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Does Mike Johnston have unrealistic expectations that perfection exists in the NHL?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The start of the 2015-2016 season hasn't started out as hoped but take a deep breath, Phil Kessel wasn't going to save this team.

Fact is, this team will go as far as the talents of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury take them.

The Penguins added Kessel, Eric Fehr, Sergei Plotnikov, Nick Bonino, and Matt Cullen to a group of forwards that had a desperate need to get better and more important, deeper. Unfortunately, that lack of depth has already reared it's ugly head with Pascal Dupuis' lower body injury, Fehr is still recovering from elbow surgery and those young forwards who were expected to push for a job failed to do anything during the preseason.

Scoring goals wasn't expected to be a problem due to those offseason changes but maybe we understated two huge elements that we're seeing getting exposed two games into the season.

First, Rob Scuderi isn't the only problem on defense.  The collective has struggled to get loose pucks in the defensive zone, so if teams are playing keep away, it doesn't give many puck possession opportunities for Crosby, Malkin and Kessel to do their thing.

Before Ian Cole was acquired, he was a disappointing former number one pick (2007 18th overall) for St. Louis. It appeared things were better for Cole last season but him getting top minutes alongside Kris Letang isn't putting him into a position to succeed.

He's a third pairing defensemen but what else is Gary Agnew and Mike Johnston to do with eight defensemen that need help in various ways? Letang needs a partner that is mobile and defensively responsible in order to allow him to float around the ice, Cole presents the best solution outside of Maatta.

Olli Maatta is coming back from a second shoulder injury, his return to top 4 action needs some time so putting him with a veteran was the right thing to do with Ben Lovejoy. Again, what option did the coaches have? Lovejoy is a third pairing defensemen if he can get protected minutes but on a team featuring a veteran who needs all the protection because of a contract, he won't be afforded such an opportunity.

Brian Dumoulin has been ok alongside Scuderi on the third pairing but having to be a young defensemen to essentially cover for the shortcomings of a veteran is no small task.

Not sure the Penguins are even playing their best six on defense as Tim Erixon and Adam Clendening haven't suited up in the first two games.

Isn't that the second problem?

The second element is coaching... really bad coaching.

Does Agnew and Johnston really think Scuderi is one of their six best defensemen? If they do, it will be a long season in Pittsburgh.

If Agnew and Johnston are playing the good soldier role because Jim Rutherford wouldn't or couldn't buyout Scuderi, then that's a problem. Coaching careers are short in the NHL, if you don't play your best, you'll be unemployed collecting a paycheck while someone else is behind the bench.

Johnston's tenure has already been placed on the hot seat, just two games into the season.

Johnston wants an attacking style but you can't have such a system when the start of any attack is a group of defensemen that just aren't that good.

Last season, it was clear Johnston struggled to coach outside of his simple system. Once injuries mounted, Johnston tried to adjust... to the very system Crosby and Malkin hated under Dan Bylsma for the last few years.

The stretch pass.

When the Penguins were playing well, their defensemen retrieved the puck quickly, centers swooped back into the middle of the ice and moved the puck in the defensive zone with speed to carry it up the ice with supporting wingers to attack the blue line and made plays to get the puck on the net.

On Tuesday, watch how often the center swoop is deployed as the team has opted to force their defensemen to make the outlet pass down low in the zone or carry it up higher in the defensive zone. This isn't the pack mentality the team says it wants to play.

The breakouts are the very reason why Bylsma failed after winning the Cup in 2009. He took the creativity away from Crosby and Malkin, opting for guys like Scuderi to handle the puck more often. That's not winning hockey in 2010, let alone 2015.

These are professionals, so they are able to make it work but not often enough. We saw that last season as success by mid-November was disappearing as the talent was wiped away by injuries and teams figured out how to defend their attack. Johnston could no longer rely on perfection to make a bad system work.

Johnston is already on the hot seat for some based on last season and two games but it would be a mistake to fire a coach this early into a season without giving him a chance to make it work, warts and all. Unfortunately, results don't always alter the perception of oneself while in the moment.

If Johnston can't put the six best defensemen on the ice, right a wrong that is splitting Crosby and Malkin on the power play and change their approach within a game that doesn't equal going all Bylsma on us, then I suspect we'll be talking about this differently by the end of November.

That's a decision even a politician can make.

Advanced Stats

It is way too early (two games) to identify a statistical theme as it relates to individual or team performance but that doesn't mean you shouldn't start to observe the path from its start in order to see those peaks and valleys.

For instance, the 5on5 CF/60 and CA/60 numbers for Maatta before this season compared to first 2 games.

2013-2014: 55.7 / 52.9

2014-2015: 55.2 / 53.8

2015-2016: 46.3 / 78.9

The quality of his teammates is down significantly (again two games), while competition has increased (again two games).

2013-2014: 15.3 / 11.6

2014-2015: 17.6 / 15.8

2015-2016: 8.5 / 17.3

It is a safe assumption that Maatta will improve, he's a bit rusty following a lost season with the shoulder. What we don't know is how his improvement could be limited by Lovejoy or the forwards he's out on the ice with during 5on5 play.

Time to think Spring for Sprong and Plotnikov

Far too often over the last six years, guys like Daniel Sprong were assigned limited roles and not expected to improve over a season. Sprong has shown more offensive ability than this team can afford to lose.

To be quite frank, Chris Kunitz is a straight line winger that takes Crosby passes as if they are live grenades. He's never been much of a shooter and the rabid badger around the net has become less and less. Sprong needs to get a few games with Crosby and Kessel, we know what the team doesn't have with Kunitz to give it a shot.

We're already seeing a coach be uncomfortable with player development as Plotnikov was moved to the third line with Bonino and Beau Bennett. We'll see what David Perron does with the opportunity, he's done enough sulking (i.e. MIA) on the third line. I don't have much expectation for Perron, he holds the puck too long, decision making too slow to fit with Malkin and Hornqvist.