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Penguins’ slow start is as rough as it seems

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This is the Penguins’ worst start to the season in more than 10 years. Yes even worse than the Mike Johnston era.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

After getting thoroughly dominated on Saturday night against ... the Ottawa Senators (?!) the Pittsburgh Penguins enter play on Monday tied for the worst record in the Eastern Conference and what is the second-worst record in the league (only the Los Angeles Kings have fewer points).

By points percentage, they are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference by themselves.

If you are searching for a silver-lining in all of this it is that the Penguins still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and betting against that duo is not the smartest thing to do. There is also the fact the Penguins have had slow starts before and not only managed to get things straightened out, but also go on to win championships.

All of that is true.

Also true: This start is a bit worse than some of those in the past. At least the more recent past.

Maybe you are thinking back to the 2015-16 season when the Penguins were sleep-walking through year two of the Mike Johnston snooze-fest. In early December they found themselves out of a playoff position and made a coaching change. That coaching change, along with an in-season overhaul of the roster, helped start the Penguins on a championship run that saw them win their fourth Stanley Cup and the first of back-to-back championships. The coaching change was significant, but the in-season roster overhaul does not get enough attention (just compare the Stanley Cup Final roster — or the playoff roster in general — to the roster that was skating in October and November. Very, very, very different).

But for as bad as that start was, they were 11-7-0 at this point in the season. Five points better.

When Johnson was replaced by Sullivan, they were 15-10-3.

The Penguins would need to win eight of their next 10 games just to reach that record at the same point in the season.

During the 2008-09 season, when they fired Michel Therrien, they were actually 11-4-3 at this point in the season. That team did not start to really struggle until around mid-season, resulting in the coaching change in Mid-February. That team, too, underwent significant roster changes to accompany the coaching change (Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin joined the team, Ryan Whitney was traded, Sergei Gonchar returned from injury).

The point here is not that the Penguins need a coaching change (that is not at all what I am suggesting), it is just to give some perspective on just how truly slow this start is.

Some more perspective?

The slow start from a year ago — the one that was the result of a brutal early schedule and physical toll of 214 games over the previous two years ... or so we wanted to believe — was three points better (9-7-2) at this point in the season.

You have to go all the way back to the 2007-08 season to find the last time the Penguins only had seven wins through their first 18 games.

It is only the sixth time since 2000 that they had seven wins or fewer. Only twice (the 2005-06 and 2003-04) seasons have they had fewer than seven during that stretch.

It is the 15th time since 1980 the team has had seven wins or fewer through the first 18 games. The track record of the previous teams in this situation is ... not great.

Out of the 14 previous teams only four of them ended up making the playoffs that season, and one of those four teams was the 1980-81 team that was playing in a league where all but five teams made the playoffs (they ended up winning just 30 games that season). Five of those teams experienced a coaching change at some point during the season.

Here is every time in Penguins history that they have had seven wins (or fewer) after 18 games.

Penguins At 18 Games (Seven wins or fewer)

Season Record Points Rest Of Season Record Playoffs Coaching Change
Season Record Points Rest Of Season Record Playoffs Coaching Change
2018-19 7 - 8 - 3 17 ? ? ?
2007-08 7 - 10 - 1 15 40 - 17 - 7 Yes No
2005-06 5 - 8 - 5 15 17 - 38 - 9 No Yes
2003-04 4 - 11 - 3 11 19 - 40 - 5 No No
2002-03 7 - 8 - 3 17 20 - 41 - 3 No No
2001-02 7 - 9 - 2 16 21 - 37 - 6 No Yes
1999-00 5 - 10 - 3 13 32 - 27 - 5 Yes Yes
1996-97 5 - 12 - 1 11 33 - 24 - 7 Yes Yes
1989-90 6 - 10 - 2 14 26 - 30 - 6 No Yes
1987-88 7 - 8 -3 17 29 - 27 - 6 No No
1985-86 5 - 10 - 3 13 29 - 28 - 5 No No
1984-85 6 - 10 - 2 14 18 - 41 - 3 No No
1983-84 5 - 11 - 2 12 11 - 47 - 4 No No
1982-83 5 - 11 - 2 12 13 - 42 - 7 No No
1980-81 5 - 10 - 3 13 25 - 27 - 10 Yes No
1978-79 5 - 10 - 3 13 31 - 21 - 10 Yes No
1977-78 5 - 9 - 4 14 20 - 27 - 14 No No
1976-77 6 - 7 - 5 17 28 - 26 - 8 Yes No
1975-76 7 - 9 - 2 16 28 - 24 - 10 Yes Yes
1973-74 6 - 9 - 3 15 22 - 32 - 6 No Yes
1970-71 5 - 7 - 6 16 16 - 30 - 14 No No
1969-70 5 - 10 - 3 13 21 - 28 - 9 Yes No
1968-69 3 - 12 - 3 9 17 - 33 - 8 No No

On the surface, not a lot of reason for optimism there. After all, at this point it is no longer really early. It is nearly a quarter of the way through the season, and especially in today’s NHL with three-point games it becomes increasingly more difficult to make up those points that get left on the table in the early going.

Now, that does not necessarily mean that this particular Penguins team can not do it.

Again, they still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (and Phil Kessel and Kris Letang) and they play in a division that, for the most part, stinks right now. The New York Islanders and New York Rangers seem destined to regress. The Capitals are off to a bad start (much like the Penguins) but are still really good, as are the Blue Jackets. The Flyers, Hurricanes and Devils are all mostly average.

So there is still a window there even though the Penguins certainly have their flaws, too (which we are all aware of right now — defensive depth, forward depth, depth of all kinds ... goaltending). They also have those four superstar players at the top that can get on a roll at any time and carry the team.

At this point the record is not a fluke; it is a fitting representative of what the Penguins have been this season. A mostly inconsistent and at times very, very, very sloppy and bad hockey team. Overall the team still has a lot of work to do (both on the ice and in terms of the roster) and it has to start stacking up wins together, and fast, if it is going to get out of this early spot and get back in the playoffs. History is not kind to their chances. This is the reality of the situation they have put themselves in.