Games won. Goals scored. Man-games lost to injury.
Every season, the Penguins seem to be at or near the top of the league rankings in each of these respective categories. Ironically, the latter should negatively affect the other two in a big way. And unfortunately, each year, the latter seems to worsen for the Penguins as the postseason draws near.
So, how bad has it actually been?
Besides being 2nd most injured NHL team since 2009-10, the Penguins have a Stanley Cup. Other Cup winners are 23rd, 28th, and 30th pic.twitter.com/mYPZpZR26I— Man-Games Lost NHL (@ManGamesLostNHL) February 18, 2017
Notice how the Chicago Blackhawks and LA Kings, who have combined for five Stanley Cups during this time, are way off to the left? Funny how that works! Also, if you’re wondering why the Chicago and LA bubbles are pea-sized, and the Penguins bubble is the size of a watermelon, that represents the quality of injured players.
The Boston Bruins, who are the only other team to win a Cup during the same timeframe, haven’t fared much worse in the injury department.
Despite the bad luck, we’re a pretty lucky bunch.
It’s pretty miraculous that the Penguins were able to win two Stanley Cups in this era, despite losing over 2,100 (!) man-games to injury since 2009-10. What’s even more impressive—or depressing—is that Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and Olli Maatta probably make up well over 50% of those man-games lost. Just think about how insane that is. Most franchises would fall off a cliff under these circumstances. Instead, the Penguins own the league’s longest active streak of consecutive playoff appearances.
The Pens may have put up a few playoff duds, endured borderline fanbase meltdowns, and not met the sky-high expectations set during the last decade, but to accomplish what they have under these conditions is pretty astounding.
Like clockwork, injuries have once again plagued this year’s Penguins team. And once again, the big-name contributors were the ones missing time. The extended absences of Evgeni Malkin, Matt Murray, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, and too many others to name have resulted in the Penguins losing—you may want to sit down for this—roughly 20 points in the NHL standings. Of course, this number is good for first place in the NHL.
NHL top 5, points in standings lost due to injured players (Lost-ps metric)— Man-Games Lost NHL (@ManGamesLostNHL) April 14, 2017
1 PIT 20.4 points
2 WPG 19.3
3 TBL 19.2
4 FLA 16.0
5 LAK 15.6
To put things into perspective, the Penguins finished with the second-best record in the Metro and second-best record in the NHL, with 111 points.
The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens team holds the NHL record for most points in a single season with 132. Different era, different rules, different league. But you do the math.
Contenders again. Banged-up again.
Like most of the past decade, the Penguins kicked off the 2017 postseason as a touted Cup contender—but not without their share of injuries. They began the playoffs with Evgeni Malkin skating for the first time in 13 games, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley having played a combined three games after missing a combined 45 games, and Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz still on the shelf. Before the first drop of the puck, starting goaltender Matt Murray was also injured and is slated to miss at least Game 2 tonight—if not longer.
Now, the injury to Matt Murray — like any goalie injury — is a completely different animal, as it could drastically change the outlook for this postseason. And obviously Kris Letang, who could miss up to six months after having neck surgery, will be sorely missed. But, with everything that’s in the rearview mirror, and the current health or mostly positive outlook for all of those we can expect to be playoff regulars, might those regular season injuries actually have been an okay thing? It’s weird to consider, but hear me out.
En route to last year’s Stanley Cup, the Penguins played 106 games. In the offseason—which was already shortened, because, you know, the whole Cup-winning thing—six Penguins took part in the World Cup of Hockey. Basically, the team played a ton of hockey games during the last calendar year.
We know how hard it is to be a repeat champion in the NHL, and the biggest obstacle for defending Cup champs is the grueling schedule and obscene amount of games it takes to win it all twice. Given the position the Penguins are currently in, are all those regular season injuries—to the players who have since gotten healthy—that bad?
After missing time last year, we saw what a fresh Evgeni Malkin could do in the playoffs. He missed some meaningless games at the end of the regular season and looked plenty healthy in Game 1.
Bryan Rust sat in the press box multiple times this season, but is back in the lineup and playing top-six minutes. He opened the scoring in Game 1. For a guy whose game is predicated on speed—assuming he is back to being 100% healthy—would getting a version of Rust who has played 25 fewer games than the maximum be that terrible? We’ve seen what his skating ability can do to teams, and I’ll gladly trade 25 regular season games worth of Bryan Rust for a fresh Bryan Rust in April, May, and June.
Speaking of speed, Carl Hagelin is back skating as well. The same things I said about Rust also apply to Hagelin. Give me him at full speed in the playoffs over the 20 regular season games he missed this year.
Chris Kunitz is not the finisher he used to be, but we saw during last year’s run that, if used in the proper role, he still has plenty utility. I’ll take a more rested Kunitz in playoff games, as opposed to running him out for extended minutes in mostly meaningless games in March.
Olli Maatta struggled mightily with his skating last postseason. He then went on to represent Finland in the World Cup of Hockey. I’m honestly convinced he hasn’t had an uninterrupted offseason training regimen in place since 2014. This season, he only played 55 regular season games. Without Kris Letang, Maatta will need to be one of many Penguins defensemen that elevate their game. In Game 1 against Columbus, he played roughly 20 minutes and posted an assist to go along with a +2 rating.
With virtually the same exact team back this year that went all the way in 2016, the Penguins were going to need to catch a few breaks along the way if they were going to repeat as Cup champions. Ironically, maybe the break they needed came in the form of what’s been their biggest pitfall for so long.