Every year there comes a point in the season where all the teams in the NHL begin to sort themselves into three different tiers.
We are not quite at that point yet (it is usually around late February or early March), but with every team having already entered the second half of its schedule we are definitely getting close.
Just what are those tiers?
- At the top, there are the six or seven teams that know they can win the Stanley Cup. It starts to become clear not only to them, but also to the rest of the league and everyone watching it that the team hoisting it at the end of the season is going to come out of this group.
- Next, you have probably another 15 teams that think they can win the Stanley Cup. Most of these teams will make the playoffs. Some of them will win a round. A few of them may even win two and make a deep run in the postseason, but they are probably just short of what is needed to be a championship team.
- Then you have the rest of the teams that know they can not win. These are the lottery teams. These are the teams that are selling and playing for the future and dreaming of ping pong balls going in their favor.
Now that the Pittsburgh Penguins have reached the unofficial halfway point of the 2018-19 season, we should try figure out exactly where they stand among the league’s teams.
First, we know they are not in that third group. So we can just scratch that off right now.
There have been times this season where the Penguins have looked like they belonged in the top-tier, such as that early season Canadian road trip and more recently the two-month stretch from late-November to mid-January where they went 17-5-3.
They have also had stretches where they have not played at anything close to that level, like the first two-and-a-half weeks of November when they went 1-7-1 and had general manager Jim Rutherford call out everyone. They also had this most recent Western Conference road trip where they just did not look good in any game outside of that one in Anaheim against a Ducks team that is just a circus at the moment.
What do you get when you have a team that goes through stretches where it looks completely unbeatable and is followed by stretches where it can’t seem to get out of its own way? A team that is pretty comfortably positioned in that second tier of teams and sitting in the middle of the standings.
At this point I see the NHL shaking out like this (again ... at this point)
Tier one (The teams that know they can win): Tampa Bay, Calgary (I think they are for real), San Jose, Vegas, Nashville, Toronto
Tier Three (The teams that know they can not win): Detroit, Los Angeles, Edmonton, New York Rangers, Carolina, Chicago, Philadelphia, Florida
Tier Two (The teams that think they might be able to win but probably won’t): Everyone else, including the Penguins.
Here is the thing about the Penguins.
What are they truly elite at right now?
We know they can score. They are a top-five team in goals-per-game, and even though it has some sour stretches their power play is still close to as good as it gets in the NHL. But even with those great offensive numbers they still tend to be an extremely top-heavy team and have been for a few months now.
A significant chunk of that offense and their ability to outscore opponents comes from their top-six. They still get outscored and outshot and outchanced at a concerning level when their third-and-fourth lines are on the ice. For a while now that has extended to every line after the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel pairing.
One line teams do not typically do well in the playoffs, and the Penguins are having some issues at times finding the right matches throughout the lineup. Some of that is sometimes due to injury (when Patric Hornqvist is out a lot of things get thrown out of whack). They also still have not found a fit with Derick Brassard and a lot of the damage that Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have done lately has come on the man-advantage.
At 5-on-5 it’s pretty much been the Crosby line or bust.
Defensively, they have a Norris Trophy contender in Kris Letang and one of the best defensive pairings in the league when he is teamed up with Brian Dumoulin.
But there are a lot of question marks after that.
The Marcus Pettersson-Jack Johnson pairing has started to turn into a pumpkin when it is not being bailed out by great goaltending behind it. Olli Maatta is okay sometimes, and sometimes not, and always has a revolving door of partners next to him.
Justin Schultz returning will help fix some of that, but this is not a great defensive team whether you are going by the numbers or the eye test.
Analytically, they are at best middle-of-the pack in pretty much every major metric.
At 5-on-5 they are 26th in the league in shot attempts against per game, 17th in scoring chances against, and 24th in high-danger chances against. When it comes to goals against they are near the bottom of the league (all via Natural Stat Trick)
By the eye test, well, you do not need to be a trained hockey scout to see the odd-man rushes they give up with alarmingly regularity when they are even a touch off their game.
Their penalty kill has been excellent overall, but I think a lot of that is goaltending based. For the season, Casey DeSmith has the fourth best PK save percentage in the league among goalies that have appeared in at least 20 games. Since returning from injury Matt Murray actually has a .950 save percentage on the PK in those 11 games which is just an obscenely high (and in no way sustainable) number. What I am trying to say here is: I am not entirely sure the penalty kill is as good as we think. Yes, your goalie has to be your best penalty killer, but how long can you expect DeSmith to play at an elite level in those situations, and how long can you expect Murray to play at a superhuman level in those situations? Even a slight slip up there from either one drops that penalty kill number quite a bit.
Overall this is a good, to sometimes very good, to even potentially great team that has just enough flaws at the moment to make you question them.
The thing the Penguins have working for them is they have something few other teams in the league have.
They have Hall of Famers. They have game-changers. They have difference-makers. Those are the hardest things to find, and the Penguins have not just one of them, they have a bunch of them.
They also have a goalie that has proven he can play big in big situations and carry the team to a championship level. That, more than anything else, can completely change a team’s season (just as it did when Murray returned healthy, immediately playing some of the best hockey of his career).
All of that is what is always going to give the Penguins at least a chance to win it all as long as this core of Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel, and Murray is in place. But as we have seen in the past that is not always enough in the Stanley Cup Playoffs because it always comes down to more than just five or six core players. There always has to be that next group of players. The 2009 team had them. The 2016 and 2017 teams had them. Does this team have them to jump from that second tier of “I think they can win teams,” to that top tier of “I know they can win teams?”
We know Jim Rutherford is going to do something else before the trade deadline. He just is. He also probably has to make another tweak or two to the roster to get it to make that jump. Otherwise it is probably going to come down to how far the top five or six players can carry the rest of the team.