The first 12 games of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season have been ... interesting.
Honestly, I still have no idea what to make of this team because they have given us so many different looks depending on the night and the opponent.
Sometimes, as they did on their four-game Canadian road trip, they look like a team that can still roll through the Eastern Conference and win another Stanley Cup.
Sometimes, as they did in their two games against Montreal, their recent two games against the Islanders, and their 5-0 drubbing at the hands of a shorthanded Maple Leafs team on Saturday, they look like a team that has just kind of slowed down and is still out of gas, much like they looked at times a year ago.
Overall, the record is very good. With 15 points in 12 games they are still on a 103-point pace for the season. That is more points than they finished with a season ago and one point fewer than they registered in 2015-16 when they went on to win the Stanley Cup.
They still have Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel putting up big numbers. They have managed to put together that pretty solid record despite the fact their goaltending has not been particularly good, nor has their overall defensive approach.
But the one constant thing that has stuck out, and this even goes back to last season, is that the Penguins just don’t look as fast as they did a few years ago.
When Mike Sullivan took over early in the 2015-16 season and the roster was overhauled mid-season the team’s calling card was about speed, and playing fast, and overwhelming teams by coming at them in waves. Nobody could keep up with them, and it helped power them to back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Lately, though, we are not seeing as much of that.
There was one particular play during Saturday’s game that stood out when Carl Hagelin looked like he was going to win a race to a loose puck and go in alone for a breakaway. When the play first started to develop it looked like the empty-net goal he scored in Nashville to clinch the 2017 Stanley Cup when he blew past P.K. Subban and cruised in for the goal. Only this time, once Hagelin got to the puck, he seemed to be immediately swarmed by three Maple Leafs players and was never really able to get off a clean shot. At the risk of making too much out of one random play in the middle of an otherwise forgettable early November game, it just seemed ... surprising. Even if Hagelin doesn’t score on the play it’s still a situation where in the past he would have at the very least registered a decent scoring chance. And he didn’t.
There are a couple of things at play here.
For one, everyone in the league is trying to play faster and putting a bigger emphasis on speed. So it is only natural to assume that every other roster in the league is gaining speed. And the Penguins, which still have a pretty significant part of the core in place from 2015-16, are getting older and thus probably slowing down a little. Let’s be honest here, as good as their top players still are and as dominant as they can be Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel, and Hornqvist are all over the age of 30. They may still be fast, but maybe they’re a fraction of a step slower than they once were. And of the new guys they have added, none of them are really considered burners.
This is not just a knee-jerk reaction to a tough game and an inconsistent start to the season. There were a lot of games last season where faster teams were giving the Penguins fits and, at times, eating them alive in transition. That same thing is happening this season.
In the end I’m not really sure what the solution is here.
While there is always the possibility that trader-Jim shows up around December or January and makes his annual mid-season moves, the Penguins are not really in a position to overhaul the roster as much as they did in the middle of the 2015-16 season.
Adjusting the way the team plays doesn’t seem ideal, either, because the Penguins certainly aren’t built to play a grind-it-out game that slows the pace. They have to play aggressively and go for offense because that is where the skill and talent is. Asking them to do anything else would be as big of a failure as Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter asking Alex Ovechkin to play some kind of bastardized neutral zone trap.
In the end this might just have to be what we get out of this current team. Sometimes everything is going to click and the pure talent at the top of the roster will win out in a lot of games. But the one structural advantage they had over the rest of the league seems to have evaporated a little bit as everyone around them starts to play the way they did, with players that might be at times better equipped to play it.