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Panic or Patience: an early season dilemma

Should Penguin fans be nervous? Or await further results? We look at an early season slump and what it could mean in the long run

Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

The Penguins lost two straight games this weekend, getting walloped on the road by a combined score of 12-4. Overall, they’re just 1-2-2 in the last five games. They’ve stayed towards the basement of the division and are now out-of-touch with the top three teams (CAR, WSH, NYR) who are 7-8 points up on Pittsburgh.

Sporting just a 5-5-4 record and now having a stretch of a lot of road games, and a lot of games in general now in the midst of a 13-game-in-23-day stretch, there are two choices that Penguin nation has been thrust in— it’s either time for patience or panic. There are valid reasons to see each side of the debate.

Panic

Penguin nation has long been prone to over-reactions where a few losses must be foretelling the end of the current era. For a team that hit an early season high water mark on October 23rd, where the Pens defeated Toronto 7-1 and pushed their record to 3-0-2, since then there is no doubt the season has gotten a lot rougher.

Pittsburgh is just 2-5-2 in the last nine games, winning none in regulation. They’ve only scored 2.0 goals/game, they’ve conceded a whopping 3.89 goals against. The power play is hovering right around John Blutarsky’s GPA (zero point zero).

The real problem is in the standings, the Pens are behind a couple of teams that have started hot in NYR, New Jersey and Columbus. Some will fall as the season goes on (the underlying numbers point to this being CBJ, who are currently outperforming expectations). The Islanders are not playing well yet either, but also have not yet had a home game and might be in tune for positive regression.

There is more risk now than one or two weeks ago that the Pens won’t be able to make up enough ground on teams in front of them, and may be in for a season-long battle to try and earn a Wild Card spot.

An extreme panic would be to already suggest the Pens become a seller and start to trade off pieces like Kris Letang and Bryan Rust, two impending free agents. In mid-November this would be a wild projection. But if the Pens remain near the bottom of the division in January, it would be time to revisit the short and longer term goals and direction of the team.

The panic mindset would lean into thinking that the Pens, winners of just five of 14 games, and just three in regulation, aren’t good enough to compete and bound to stay mired in the funk of the last few weeks and continue to lose ground on the pack. At this point, it still is dependent on the future not turning around, but becomes a more natural idea with each passing game.

The panic comes from the results.

Patience

On the other side, the patience would come from the process.

There’s a case to be made to see what the future holds. The Pens have faced enormous obstacles so far this season. Evgeni Malkin has yet to play. Sidney Crosby has only played two games and has not had a chance to really get up to speed yet. The team absorbed a wave of COVID diagnoses that swept through their group, sidelining key players and even the coach.

And then, overall, this Pens’ team probably deserves better than what they have gotten so far this season:

The Pens are well below expected goals. When you have players like Teddy Blueger and Brian Boyle taking shots, instead of Crosby and Malkin, well, the goals aren’t going to come. Makes sense.

Beyond that, just overall the team shooting has been cold this season:

The Pens haven’t gotten the results, but their process of carrying play has been pretty strong, even with recent poor showings in Ottawa and Washington:

There’s a case to be made with regression, we might see PIT and NYI improve and the carriage could turn into a pumpkin for teams like Philadelphia and NYR. Then again, it’s not uncommon for teams through luck, timely situational scoring/goaltending to buck trends and continue to win games despite not carrying 5v5 play.

(In a sense, something similar did occur last year, when the Flyers started with good results 7-2-1 in a 56 game season despite poor metrics and had a total goaltending collapse and missed the playoffs by a mile. The Pens started 5-5-1 last season with poor results but good process and ended up winning the division. And again, that was just a 56 game season and this year, of course is back to more runway with an 82 game season.)

Overall

After a losing streak, it always feels like the bottom is never going to happen and the season is in a free fall. This isn’t truly the case even though it can feel that way. Most internet models taking into account the strong 5v5 results still generally like the Pens.

The Athletic’s season tracker has the Pens’ playoff odds at 47% today.

Even with patience, the Pens have work to do. They are healthy for the first time this season, besides Malkin. They have aspects of their game, like the power play, to figure out and figure out in a hurry if they want to win more of these close games that they find themselves in. The next two games against Buffalo and Montreal are ones that should be setup to get back on track and put points in the standings column. If the process remains good, the results have to follow, because it is a results-based league and now the lineup is putting the right players in the right roles.

End of the day

Where are you at right now? Pretty simple choices to boil down how you feel about where the Penguins are at, and where they might be headed in the future.

Poll

As of today, when it comes to the Penguins I am:

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    Team Panic
    (245 votes)
  • 66%
    Team Patience
    (486 votes)
731 votes total Vote Now