The 2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins had a few devastating flaws that proved to be just a little too much to overcome in their quest for a third consecutive championship.
Kris Letang never seemed to be himself in his recovery from an injury that took away half of the previous season.
Matt Murray struggled through a tough year both on and off the ice.
And the Penguins, as a team, reverted back to a little bit of what they were in the years prior to their recent championship run when they were too dependent on their two big stars to carry the team.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the former two flaws over the past few months, but let’s take a closer look at the latter one because it probably doesn’t get enough attention as we head into 2018.
Toward the end of the Dan Bylsma era, the Penguins had a bizarrely constructed roster that had two otherworldly superstars at the top of the lineup — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — and what can probably be best described as a bunch of guys skating around them. The Crosby and Malkin duo were good enough to carry them to the playoffs and make them look like contenders, but they were never really contenders. And then when the team would inevitably bow out in the first-or second round to a deeper, superior team, they would get knocked with the underachiever label and crap would hit the fan for the duration of the summer that followed.
Championship NHL teams have some common threads between them.
They all have a core of elite, high-end talents, usually consisting of a top center or two and a top-tier defender. They also have depth. A lot of depth. Depth that makes it so they are not totally dependent on their top two or three players to entirely carry the load, and the Penguins franchise over the past 10 years is a good illustration for how important that secondary depth is to winning a championship.
When the Penguins have had that hit, they have won. When they haven’t ... they have not won. In 2017-18, the Penguins did not have it. At least not to the level that they did in the previous seasons.
The simplest way to look at this is to look at what the Penguins have done when neither of their big-two centers are on the ice.
Last season, they struggled a bit.
When neither Crosby or Malkin were on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Penguins were outscored by a 57-72 margin (minus-15) and controlled around 48 percent of the total shot attempts.
They scored 2.17 goals per 60 minutes without Crosby and Malkin on the ice, while allowing 2.74.
So let’s take a look at some numbers from the previous five years to see how it all compares.
The 2015-16 and 2016-17 teams were able to keep their heads above water without Crosby or Malkin on the ice and, wouldn’t you know it, those were the two years that resulted in championships.
The 2017-18 season looked very much like the 2013-14 and 2015-15 teams. Now, we’re not talking about drastic differences here, but there is always a very fine line between winning and losing in professional sports. The gap between the teams at the top is often times miniscule.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the Penguins’ performance sans Crosby and Malkin last season is that it wasn’t necessarily a problem relating to scoring depth, as it had been in 2013-14 and 2014-15. They scored at a nearly identical rate as they did in the two Stanley Cup years, and actually a little higher than the 2016 team.
The problem was they couldn’t stop anybody, as that 2.74 goals against per 60 minutes illustrates. Keep in mind: Only two teams in the NHL gave up more than 2.74 goals per 60 minutes last season — the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders. So, in other words, when neither of the Penguins’ top-two centers were on the ice last season they gave up goals at the same rate as the two worst defensive teams in the league.
That is a problem, and it falls on everyone.
Obviously Murray did not play up to the level that he demonstrated during his first two years in the league, and the defense was never really great, especially with Letang struggling through his up-and-down play. But the Penguins’ center depth also took a huge hit in the first half of last season when they were trying to deal with the free agency departures of Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. Those two not only provided good scoring depth from the third-and fourth-center spots, they were also pretty good defensive players that solidified those spots. Eventually, the Penguins addressed those spots by trading for Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard, and having them for a full season should help.
They also brought back Cullen and added Derek Grant in free agency, both of whom should be upgrades over the Carter Rowney and Greg McKegg experiences they rolled with in the early stages of last season.
I will argue that Brassard wasn’t as disappointing as he was perceived to be following the trade, and as long as they stick with him as the third-line center and resist the urge to move him to a top-six wing he can make the impact the Penguins hoped he would when they traded for him. Add Cullen and Sheahan to the fourth line and a full season of them is going to help, not only as it relates to the scoring depth, but the all-around play.
Better goaltending and play from the blue line will help, too.
The Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks have been the two most successful franchises in the salary cap era, and their top stars get the bulk of that credit when they win (and the bulk of the blame when they don’t). But they haven’t combined to win six of the past 10 Stanley Cups simply because they had a couple of great players at the top. They did it because they had those great players at the top and the depth around them to still outplay and outscore their opponents when those stars weren’t on the ice.
In 2017-18 the Penguins, for one reason or another, lost a little bit of that.
They should be able to get it back in 2018-19.