The Pittsburgh Penguins were 6-5 winners on Tuesday night thanks in large part to two-goal efforts from Sidney Crosby — who has been remarkable the past two games in going head-to-head against Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid — Patric Hornqvist, and ... *checks notes again* ... Jamie Oleksiak? What the hell?
They needed those great individual efforts offensively, and especially Crosby’s, to get the win because they once again looked like a team that either has no interest in playing defense or no concept on how to play defense. I mean, how do you give up a 2-on-0 immediately after a faceoff?
On Friday in the latest Trending Penguins Players look I pointed out how great the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing has been, and that continued on Tuesday night in Edmonton. Letang was the only defenseman on the team that was not on the ice for a goal against, he finished as a positive possession player, made a great play on Connor McDavid in the defensive zone to knock the puck off his stick when he was right in front of the net in prime scoring position, and has continued to be the team’s best overall player so far this season.
Dumoulin is just his normal steady self. He will not wow you, he will not bring you out of your seat, he will not put up big numbers. He will just quietly get his job done and play good, solid defense.
And that is where the good, solid defense ends on this team.
Let’s start with the guy everyone wants to talk about — Jack Johnson.
That was a night. If you are looking for a common denominator on all five Oilers goals, Johnson would be the place to start because he was on the ice for all five of them. If you’re someone that wants to believe in that signing and that Sergei Gonchar and the Penguins have some sort of magic wand that can fix any defenseman they get their hands on you are going to try and rationalize it and say it was just a coincidence, and that they were not all his fault, and that other people failed to do their jobs, and look at that nice breakout pass he made a couple of nights ago.
As I said on Twitter last night during the game, Johnson’s career can be summed up by scrutinizing every goal against while he is on the ice and making a compelling X’s and O’s argument for why it was not his fault, but you are going to find yourself doing it two times per night because his team is always getting scored on when he is on the ice. At some point, after 12 years of the same thing, it is either a stunning coincidence, or he is the unluckiest player that has ever set foot on an NHL rink.
Or, the third option — he’s just not very good.
Up front I will say I did not anything like about that signing, but I’ve tried to refrain from making too many criticisms early on because I wanted to give it a chance. I didn’t buy the arguments made in support of it (he needed a better team; the Penguins can work with him, etc.), but I wanted to see how it would play out.
And through seven games it is playing out exactly how I thought it would, because it is exactly how his entire career has played out — when Jack Johnson is on the ice, his team is probably fishing the puck out of its own net and is spending way too much time defending pucks going in the direction of its own net.
When the Penguins’ interest in Johnson was first announced I wrote over at NBC about how baffling that was given what Johnson’s career has looked like, how he has consistently been near the bottom of the league throughout his career in terms of shot attempts and goals against, and how every team he has played on throughout his career has been worse when he is on the ice as opposed to when he is not.
This is literally what is happening here, and it does not matter who the Penguins put him with. They literally tried everybody on Tuesday night and they all got scored on. Johnson and Riikola? Johnson and Maatta? Johnson and Dumoulin? Even Letang looked anchored down in the few minutes he was on the ice with him.
For the season, he’s a negative possession player (one of the worst on the team) and has already been on the ice for 10 even-strength goals against. No other defenseman on the team has been on the ice for more than seven against, and only two (Letang and Dumoulin) have been on for more than five ... and those two have played nearly 30 additional minutes than Johnson at even-strength and still be on the ice for at least three fewer goals.
They also provide offense.
You can be skeptical of analytics. You can tell me to watch the games. You can tell me why none of these goals are completely the fault of one player. But how can you possibly tell me that after more than a decade of the same story, with the same player, that it’s not actually something about the player?
It’s. Not. A. Coincidence.
Now, I didn’t mean for this entire thing be about Jack Johnson because even I can acknowledge that is unfair, because he’s not the only problem. He’s just part of the problem, especially when paired alongside Olli Maatta, who has ... not been good. Honestly, there really isn’t anyone outside of the 58-8 duo that is playing consistently well on the blue line, especially with Schultz sidelined.
And that’s a problem.
I’ve said it before, but this is such a weird defense because if you look at each player individually you can want to say to yourself, “Oh, Olli Maatta ... he’s pretty good, right?” Or “Jamie Oleksiak ... he’s been better than I thought he would be.”
But the results as a group just are not particularly good.
When you combine that with what has been, outside of the Toronto game, some leaky goaltending and you’re going to find yourself needing six goals to win.
This does not excuse the forwards, either, who at times show no interest in playing defense. They are playmakers. The Penguins need them to be playmakers. No one wants to turn Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel into what the Capitals tried to turn Alex Ovechkin into a few years back when they asked him to play the neutral zone trap. But unless they are playing a top team the attention to defense and attention to detail just does not seem to be there.
It all adds up.
This seems like an overly critical assessment of a team that seven games into the season has only lost one game in regulation and has 10 out of a possible 14 points (that is a 117 point pace!) but I am still not really sure what this team is at this point.
The results are mostly good. The process leaves a lot to be desired. The process is what is going to matter in the long-run because you might be able to escape in October against teams like Edmonton and collect points against Vancouver based on sheer talent. That will not work if you want to win a Stanley Cup in June.