Three games into the season is obviously too early to start slamming panic buttons and worrying about the state of the season because, well, it’s still only three games.
The Devils started last year 4-0. The Sabres had the best record in the league a month-and-a-half into the season. The Ducks looked like a playoff team because John Gibson stole all the games. Then all of those teams finished near the bottom of the league once April rolled around because they were not actually good. You already know the St. Louis Blues story.
In other words, a lot of things can change over the next six months.
Also to be fair, the Penguins’ forward lineup has been decimated by injury over the past game-and-a-half, currently leaving them without Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, and apparently at practice on Wednesday Alex Galchenyuk.
But man, this start has been ugly even with a 7-2 win thrown in the middle of the first three games.
As of Wednesday the Penguins have played nine periods of hockey this season.
One of them (the second period against Columbus) was great.
One of them (the third period against Columbus) was pretty good.
The other seven have been, in a word, bad. Especially when you consider that all three games so far have been at home and against teams you would think the Penguins would have the upper hand on.
The season-opening loss to Buffalo (which was very bad) was with a mostly healthy Penguins lineup and looked outclassed, out played, and outworked for 60 minutes.
They responded by crushing Columbus, mainly due to an overmatched rookie goalie in his NHL debut having a nightmare second period.
While they were shorthanded at forward on Tuesday against the Jets, part of that was their own doing (only dressing 11 forwards to begin with). They were also going up against a Jets team that was literally playing without any of the top-eight defenders that were on the team a year ago, putting a defensive lineup on the ice that had just 350 combined games of NHL experience. They not only beat the Penguins, they made them look horrendous for two periods (the Penguins didn’t start to pump up the shot totals until the third period, when the game was already 4-1) while the undermanned defense scored three of the Jets’ four goals. They were about an inch away on an offside review from trailing 5-1 after two periods. The Penguins tried to convince themselves after the game that they may have deserved better, but that’s just not even close to how the game played out. They did not start taking it to the Jets until it was way too late.
The most concerning thing here, other than the early results, goes back to what I wrote about on Friday and how all of the questions you may have had about this team before the season are already starting to surface.
Outside of Sidney Crosby and Malkin there just isn’t another forward on the team that scares other teams (Jake Guentzel might be in that mix, but that kind of goes hand-in-hand with Crosby since they spend all of their time together). So far the depth players and the new additions just look like roster filler. Galchenyuk had some nice passes against Columbus, but he hasn’t really “wowed” anyone yet. Dominik Kahun only played 12 minutes against Winnipeg on a night the team was down to nine or 10 forwards for most of the night, a pretty damning indictment on what the team thinks of him and what he can offer so far. Zach Aston-Reese still has not taken that big step.
Then there is the defense where they are for some reason carrying nine players (while woefully shorthanded at forward) that are not good enough.
The concern in the short-term is that with Malkin sidelined there are not enough difference-makers at forward to give them enough offense, while they do not have enough talent on defense to help feed them even if they did. After Thursday’s game against Anaheim the Penguins’ schedule starts to get a lot tougher throughout the rest of the opening month, and there is little in their early play or projected roster to suggest that it is going to be easy to navigate through.
While recent NHL history is filled with teams that have overcome slow starts to play at a championship level (including the Penguins) it is not exactly a recipe that you want to follow. For every team that does overcome its slow start to win a championship (or even compete for one) there are eight or nine every year that do not overcome it.
It is not just the results that are concerning. It is the way they have looked in reaching the results, and the way the roster looks on paper right now (through a combination of bad luck and bad decisions), that is concerning.