Once the Penguins wrap up this five-game western road trip on Saturday (a road trip that ... has not gone great so far!) they will have eight days off as part of their NHL bye week, as well as the NHL All-Star break. They will not return to the ice until January 28 when they host the New Jersey Devils to kick off what will be their stretch run for the 2018-19 season.
It’s going to be interesting because we’re really not sure what the team is going to look like, while they are going to be in a fight for playoff positioning. Perhaps even a playoff spot.
Let’s take a look at a few things to watch for...
Where they stand right now ... in the standings — The Penguins are in a bizarre spot in the standings right now. Their two-game skid out West, combined with Buffalo’s overtime win against Calgary on Wednesday night, leaves the Penguins in the second wild card spot ... just two points ahead of the first non-playoff team, the Buffalo Sabres (the Penguins also have a game in hand). That’s not exactly an ideal position to be in because, at least on paper, looks to leave them in a vulnerable spot when it comes to simply making the playoffs. And if they did make it as of these standings their first-round opponent would be ... the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nobody wants that in round one.
But they are also only three points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division, and just a single point from being back in the top-three.
When it comes to a playoff spot I’m not too worried about it. They are going to be there. Only having a two point cushion at a little more than the halfway point is kind of jarring to look at when you’re a team that is used to competing for the Stanley Cup, but there is really only one team on the outside of the playoff picture (Buffalo) that is a threat to any of the teams currently in the playoffs. And if there is a team in a playoff spot that is more vulnerable I would put my money on the New York Islanders or Montreal Canadiens.
When it comes to playing for seeding, I’m of the belief that it does not particularly matter what seed the Penguins are ... as long as they end up in the Metropolitan Division bracket. I like them as a matchup against any of Washington, Columbus, or even the Islanders should it get to that point. Not saying they will win any or all of those matchups, but they absolutely can win any or all of them no matter where they might have to a play a potential Game 7.
The problem with their current position, as it stands on publication of this post on Jan. 17, is that they would end up in the Atlantic Division bracket against the Lightning.
Now, if the Penguins are going to emerge from the Eastern Conference they are probably going to have to beat one of Tampa Bay or Toronto to get there. But you would probably much rather have to face just one of challenges in the Conference Final instead of what would most likely be each of the first two rounds.
What the schedule looks like — This past week Travis Yost at TSN looked at each team’s remaining strength of schedule and the Penguins’ schedule looks ... kind of brutal, at least based on each team’s “expected goals” number. What will also make it impactful is they have a lot of “four point games” coming ahead of them.
Remember how I said Buffalo is the only team outside of the playoff picture that is a threat to them? They play two of their three games against Buffalo in the second half. Both in March. Both in Buffalo.
Carolina is the team right behind Buffalo in the standings, but they are seven points back of the playoffs. That is a huge gap at this point in the season. What might close that gap is Carolina winning a few head-to-head matchups in regulation. They have three such matchups with the Hurricanes in the second half.
Head to head matchups are the best ways to gain ground in the standings.
The problem with the Penguins’ second half schedule is they only have four head-to-head games remaining with teams they are chasing (three against Columbus, one against Washington).
They also have one game against Montreal (the team ahead of them in the first wild card spot, which would put them back in the Metropolitan Division bracket).
Take care of those head to head games, and everything else takes care of it self.
They do only have five sets of back-to-backs remaining, which is good and the majority of their games are at home. Also good.
Who will be on the team? — It is nearly impossible to predict where this team will finish in the standings, who it will be playing in the playoffs, and what its potential path through the playoffs will look like. Too many possible outcomes and possibilities. What is not impossible to predict is that the roster they have on paper right now will not be the roster they have on paper in March, April, and potentially May or June. Jim Rutherford has at least one more trade cooking. He always does.
He has already traded Carl Hagelin, Daniel Sprong, and Derek Grant and you can bet that is not all he sees needing done to get the Penguins where they want to be.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Derick Brassard’s time in Pittsburgh is probably best measured in days, not weeks or months, which would almost certainly mean another center is coming back to Pittsburgh (especially with Grant’s recent departure).
Will he ship out a defender once Justin Schultz returns, or will he stick with the logjam of depth under the assumption that somebody, at some point, will get injured. Having eight interchangeable parts on defense was a big part of the 2016 and 2017 blue lines that won Stanley Cups because even when somebody did get hurt there was always a capable player ready to fill in. The 2017 defense may not have had a No. 1 player with Kris Letang sidelined, but it had seven or eight players that were all of NHL quality and were not out of place when they had to play. There is something to be said for that.