When the Penguins started slow a season ago it was explained away — or attempted to be explained away — by the fact they had played a ton of hockey over the previous two seasons, they had a brutal schedule to start the year, they still needed to make a trade to replace the depth they lost in free agency over the summer, and ... hey ... it was still early and they would eventually kick it into gear and flip the switch when the games really mattered.
While they did get better, and while they did overcome what was at times an ugly first half of the season, they never really quite got back to the level they showed the previous two seasons.
This season there really isn’t explanation for what has happened over the first five games where they have not looked great. Or at times even very good.
With Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks, a particularly dull game from both sides, the Penguins are now 2-1-2 on the season and have won just one of those games in regulation.
Make no mistake, it’s not a terrible start, but it’s not a particularly good start, either.
They just sort of look like they’re putting in the hours on game nights.
They had a longer summer to rest. They have what general manager Jim Rutherford thinks could be his deepest team since he has been in Pittsburgh. Their schedule so far has been incredibly light, having not only not had a single set of back-to-backs yet, but have had multiple days off between games and really haven’t played a daunting schedule in terms of opponents. Three of their first five games have been against rebuilding teams that missed the playoffs a year ago (and are expected to miss them again this season) while one of the two good teams they played (Vegas Golden Knights) was coming in on the second half of a back-to-back and starting its backup goalie against a rested Penguins team that had not played in five days. This should have been a good opportunity to storm out of the gate fast and start strong.
I don’t think anyone on the coaching staff or in that locker room is particularly pleased with the early results or the process behind them.
The only thing that can be said at this point is that it is still very early.
Sidney Crosby may not be a 100-point player anymore, but you know you’re going to get more from him than what you’ve gotten so far. The same is true for Evgeni Malkin.
They are obviously still tinkering with some things and experimenting to see what can work and what will not work. The defense pairings outside of the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing (which has been very good, I think) are seemingly thrown into a blender at this point, especially with the injury to Justin Schultz. They are experimenting up front with Derick Brassard on the top line (not a fan of this, but I’m not going to throw papers in the air over line combinations in October).
But none of that is what should be concerning for Penguins fans. It is simply the way the team is playing, and I’m not sure we can just chalk it up to “it’s early” because it’s continuing what has been a trend for more than a year now.
The Penguins’ two most recent Stanley Cup teams were different in the way they played. The 2015-16 team, from the time that Mike Sullivan took over and Jim Rutherford made the roster changes that he made to bring more speed to the lineup, simply overwhelmed teams from start to finish every single night. They came at teams in waves, no one could match up with them line-for-line, and no one could match up with their speed or skating ability. The result was a team that dominated the territorial play, was one of the best possession teams in the NHL (second best 5-on-5 shot differential in the NHL for the season, and they were even better after the hiring of Sullivan).
The second Stanley Cup team did not play the same way, especially throughout the playoffs. They spent more time pinned in their own zone. They did not sustain as much offensive zone pressure. They were more of a counter-punching team that feasted on mistakes and buried their chances when they got them because they had such elite talents up front (Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final series against Nashville being a perfect example ... they went nearly two full periods without a shot on goal and then buried the one shot they did get to win the game).
Great goaltending also helped mask that, and I do not think anyone would argue that they have been getting great goaltending lately.
On one hand, it is entirely possible, it not entirely likely, that the rest of the NHL has caught up with the Penguins, both literally and figuratively. After their success winning championships in 2016 and 2017 it’s only fair to assume that other teams around the league started assembling their rosters in a similar way, placing an emphasis on speed, playing fast, and skating (and teams most certainly have done that).
The Penguins are also at this point one of the oldest teams in the NHL. They may not be able to overwhelm teams the way they did three years ago.
But they still showed at times last season, especially after the additions of Brassard and Riley Sheahan, that they can be closer to the team that controlled the play territorially. It wasn’t as consistent and dominant as it was in 2015-16, but it was still there. You could still see it at times. It can still be there if they balance out the lineup more and go back to giving Brassard his own line instead of shortening the depth chart by playing him — and by extension, the rest of the centers — up in the lineup.
They also need to get better goaltending from, well, everybody. Mike Sullivan is happy with the way Casey DeSmith has played, but he was not particularly good on Tuesday against Vancouver and Matt Murray needs to be — and can be — significantly better than he’s been since the start of the 2017-18 season. We know the defense is going to be sketchy at times; they need better goaltending.
They could still “flip the switch” at some point (and my goodness do I hate saying that).
But maybe, just maybe, this is closer to what this team actually is; They have enough high-end talent up front to make up for their obvious deficiencies around the lineup when it is clicking on all cylinders, and when they get even good goaltending it will look great.
But when the high-end talent isn’t quite clicking, and the goaltending isn’t great, the results are going to be closer to what we have seen so far this season. Just kind of ... blah.