We are 10 games into the 2021-22 NHL season so it seems like a good time to take a look back at what we have learned about these Pittsburgh Penguins so far.
Strong process, okay results
The early record of 4-3-3 is not great, and there have been a couple of points given away with third period breakdowns (specifically against Florida and Minnesota where multi goal leads disappeared) but I think there is a lot of reason to like the way the Penguins have played for the most part.
Their underlying numbers are strong, and among the best in the league.
They are on the positive side of the shot attempt differential (51.5 percent shot attempt share during 5-on-5 play) and in the top-five when it comes to expected goals (fifth place at 54.9 percent) and high-danger scoring chance (fourth place at 56.4 percent) differentials.
They are also outscoring teams by a 24-19 margin in 5-on-5 situations (very good!) and have one of the league’s best penalty killing units (also very good!).
Basically, I have not seen anything from this team so far that changes my preseason prediction that they are still going to be playoff team. They are right there. They just need to get their players back. Speaking of that.
Their luck still stinks
Because of injury and COVID-19 protocols the Penguins top players have been sidelined for most of the season so far. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jeff Carter, Bryan Rust, Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Marcus Pettersson have combined to miss 40 man games so far this season. Crosby and Malkin have played in a total of one game (Crosby played one game), while Letang has missed four games and Rust has missed seven games.
Add in head coach Mike Sullivan being out for the past two games and who knows how many more in the future and that is a lot to overcome.
In all honesty it kind of makes the overall record and the underlying numbers even more impressive. They have at least stayed in it and given themselves a chance to remain competitive until they get their best players back in the lineup.
Tristan Jarry is still a mystery
Overall I think Jarry has played fine, and the numbers back that up. So far he has rebounded nicely from that ugly Stanley Cup Playoff showing and has rewarded Penguins management for its confidence in him. But it is also still a small sampling, and at times it does seem like his whole performance is a house of cards. I did not like his game against Minnesota on Saturday, and his shootout performances have been dreadful so far, stopping just two out of seven shots in two losses to Dallas and Minnesota. He is still a huge wild card for the Penguins and is going to play a significant role in what this team does this season.
Strong first impressions from the new players
Specifically Danton Heinen and Brock McGinn, Heinen has been especially impressive as he currently is the team’s leading scorer after signing for just over one million dollars against the salary cap in the offseason. With Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann leaving this offseason they were going to need to rebuild some depth, and the depth players have more than held their own this season so far. Heinen has been strong, McGinn has six points in 10 games, and even players like Drew O’Connor and Evan Rodrigues are making contributions. It is a good, positive development to have secondary players contributing because when the stars get back in the lineup you know you can still have a competent group of complementary players around them.
The power play is still a mess
We can chalk some of this up to the absence of players like Crosby, Malkin, Rust, and Letang for a significant portion of the season. But you would still like to see them convert on more than 12 percent of their chances so far. They have missed some big opportunities to put games away (or get back into games) and have not been a game-changing unit at any point this season. That continues a weakness from the 2020-21 season. The fact the Penguins have been so good with 5-on-5 scoring is encouraging, but you still want to get something from the power play unit.
Mike Matheson is still a high event player
If you like chaos, Mike Matheson is your player. He is among the Penguins leaders in expected goals for when he is on the ice, and one of the worst players in expected goals against. That is the Mike Matheson experience. He scored one of the best goals of the season against Toronto, and was guilty of one of the most glaring turnovers resulting in a late game-tying goal against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Marcus Pettersson has been a pleasant surprise
At least he has been to me. Prior to leaving the lineup recently I thought he has been one of the Penguins’ best all-around players, and certainly one of their best defensemen in all phases of the game. He and John Marino are important players for the Penguins defense because of their long-term salary and salary cap commitments, and also because of their age and the fact they should be just now entering the prime years of their careers. If they play to their abilities that is the makings of a great second defensive pair to go with Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin.
No margin for error in the division.
They can overcome the early record and still make the Stanley Cup Playoffs (I again believe they will) but they do not want to waste any time. There are no weaknesses or off nights in the division with this season, with even the Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils looking strong.