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Jumping to conclusions: How good of a defensive team can the Penguins be?

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The first two games were not encouraging, but let’s not read too much into it ... yet.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The absolute worst part about the start of the NHL season (and to be fair, this is probably true in every sport) is always the immediate conclusions we jump to when things don’t go exactly as planned at the very beginning — or if they go better than expected.

Through the first week of the 2018-19 season we’ve seen the Penguins play two games and already there are a couple of big concerns, specifically when it comes to the team’s play defensively and the play of their starting goalie, Matt Murray. Neither has been great! Those early developments left coach Mike Sullivan in a sour mood after Saturday’s lifeless 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

But it’s early. It’s two games. And after two games last season the Penguins had not only failed to win one, but they had already given up 15 goals. So things could be worse.

Still, there is a question that is worth asking here as it relates to the Penguins’ defense: Best-case scenario, just how good can this team be defensively?

This early in the season you’ve got a couple of things at play here.

First, any type of extreme performance — good or bad — is going to stand out in a pretty big way because you have nothing around it to hide it. If you give up 11 goals over a two-game stretch in the middle of January it might get talked about a little bit, it might not leave the coach thrilled, but it’s not going to be as glaring of a problem because there’s 40 games that preceded it and you have some sort of an idea of what your team is and what it is capable of doing. Sometimes the puck just goes in the net against you. But this early it’s going to be a cause for concern.

I also think there’s a “give-a-crap” issue here. And that’s not to say that a team like the Penguins mails these early season games in, but when you’re a contending team that’s been playing on the biggest stage and in the biggest games over the past three years it’s probably a lot harder to get yourself fired up for an Oct. 6 game against a Montreal team that probably isn’t going anywhere. They’re professional athletes yes, but they’re also human. And if you watched Saturday’s game against Montreal there was most definitely a “give-a-crap” issue at play, especially when it came to their play defensively.

Having said that, even though what you saw in the first two games was probably an outlier on the season there is still the question as to what this team is capable of defensively.

These Penguins are never going to be a defensive stalwart. Sullivan talked after the first game about trying to figure out the team’s identity and what they want to be, and how their DNA is to instinctively try to be playmakers. And that’s what they do. When you have a team built to score goals, it is going to do just that. And when that team tries to score goals and inevitably ends up playing an up-tempo, track-meet style of game it’s going to open things up for chances the other way. There is a delicate balance there between being more responsible and being more “calculated” in the chances you take, and completely altering the DNA of what team is. You want to cut down on the chances you’re allowing, but you also don’t want to become the latter-day Bruce Boudreau Capitals where you’re trying to make Alex Ovechkin play some kind of neutral zone trap.

This defensive unit is mostly the same one that’s been in place for the past few years with only a couple of changes, and if you look at the team’s defensive performance during that stretch there’s not a ton of great shut down play going on there. There have been flashes of it, no doubt, but the foundation of this team’s success has always been about its ability to score, and its goalies ability to bail out the defense.

Here are some numbers from the past three full seasons, looking at where the Penguins ranked in some key defensive categories: Goals against per 60 minutes, shot attempts against per 60 minutes, shots on goal against per 60 minutes, scoring chances against per 60 minutes (all of these are at 5-on-5 play), and their penalty killing unit. All numbers via Natural Stat Trick.

Pittsburgh Penguins Defensive Ranks

Season Goals Against/60 Shot Attempts Against/60 Shots on Goal Against/60 Scoring Chances Against/60 Penalty Kill
Season Goals Against/60 Shot Attempts Against/60 Shots on Goal Against/60 Scoring Chances Against/60 Penalty Kill
2017-18 28th 6th 9th 18th 17th
2016-17 17th 24th 25th 24th 20th
2015-16 8th 11th 13th 7th 5th
Bit of a mixed bag here

Even when the team has been at a Stanley Cup level the defense has been ... not great. The 2015-16 team was probably average across the board, while the 2016-17 team was generally terrible. Both teams were backed up by exceptional goaltending that made the difference. Last year’s team did a great job when it came to suppressing shots and shot attempts, but was only average (at best) when it came to scoring chances and had very little quality goaltending behind it.

So I guess the question here now becomes: Why should we expect this season to be any different than the past three? This is what the team is, the way it it is built, and the way it plays.

When it comes to personnel, Kris Letang is probably the only defender on the team that profiles as a true top-pairing defender. Brian Dumoulin is pretty good. Olli Maatta can be pretty good. Justin Schultz is a weapon on the power play and can be pretty good. There is nothing to be said about Jack Johnson that has not already been said, and your opinions of him are probably already set. On paper — and on the ice — it’s just not a unit that is going to ever be truly great defensively, and when combined with a group of forwards whose DNA and identity is to attack and score you run the risk of leaving yourself open to some shoddy defensive play and a lot of chances against, while simultaneously driving your coach to madness.

This is why when I looked at the five key players that could make or break the Penguins’ season that Matt Murray and Kris Letang were the two players at the top of the list, and honestly the list probably could have stopped there.

If Letang isn’t superstar level Letang, the defense simply does not have another high-level player on it.

If Murray isn’t good, you’re going to see a lot of five and six goal nights on the scoreboard.

Letang has shown some flashes of being the player he needs to be over the first two games, especially offensively, but Murray has not looked sharp. Some of it has been the fact he’s been left out on an island (like most of the goals on Saturday night), and part of it has just been some early struggles. But even with all of his early career success the jury is still out on what direction he goes in because he has still played less than 150 games in the NHL. He’s been great, and he’s been ... not great.

So at the end, the Penguins can be — and need to be — better than they have been defensively over the past two games. But they are probably never, as currently constructed, be an upper-echelon, top-tier defensive team and they are going to need their goalie to play the biggest role in their ability to prevent goals.

I don’t say that based on what I have seen over first two games of the season. I say that based on the way the team is built, the way it has won in the past, and the way it has performed over the past three full seasons.