If you can believe it, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night was already their 14th game of the 2020-21 season, meaning that we are now officially one quarter of the way through the 56-game season.
Let’s check in with a progress report on what we have seen so far.
Record: 7-6-1, 15 points in 14 games.
In terms of raw points, the Penguins are in fifth place in the division and trailing the first-place Boston Bruins by seven points. They are also four points behind the New York Islanders for what would be home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a game in hand.
When it comes to points percentage (which could be a factor this season) their .536 mark is only sixth-best in the East Division.
By either measure (raw point total or points percentage) the Penguins would miss the playoffs this season, which means the Minnesota Wild would be getting a lottery pick by way of the Jason Zucker trade.
Their 82-game pace is 88 points at the moment. That is their worst pace since they managed just 58 points during the 2005-06 season.
Biggest surprises: Teddy Blueger, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, and Cody Ceci
All three are surprises for different reasons.
In Blueger’s case it’s that his offense has come around a bit more than expected. You know his line is going to shut things down defensively, but he already has eight points this season in 14 games. That’s a plus.
In Joseph’s case it might just be the fact that he is on the roster and playing so well. He opened the year on the Taxi Squad but was forced into the lineup due to all of the injuries. All he has done is play so well that it would be total madness to ever send him back to the American Hockey League or take him out of the lineup when everyone is healthy. The Phil Kessel trade was always going to depend on his development, and so far it is off to a great start.
As for Ceci, I just think he has been far better than I anticipated. His signing was a punch line given that it came just after the Penguins jettisoned Jack Johnson’s contract in a buyout as most of us seemed to expect the worst. While he still has his flaws and has not totally great across the board, he is definitely been very serviceable. That might be more than a lot of us anticipated at the start of the season or when he actually signed his contract.
Biggest disappointments: Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang
It is not hard to figure this one out. They have both been a fraction of what we expect them to be.
Malkin has finally started to add some points and score a handful of goals, but he has not been anything close to the game-changer he has been throughout his career. At times it looks like he forgot how to play hockey. It is so confusing because he was so dominant just one year ago. Teddy Blueger should not have more points than him 14 games through the season.
Letang, meanwhile, is still searching for his first goal of the season and has just not played at the level you expect a No. 1 defenseman to play at, and the level he has played at for almost his entire career.
The ability of these two to get things back on track is going to be a major deciding factor in what this team is able to do this season. Even with all of the X-factors on the roster the Penguins still needed their superstars to play and produce like superstars. So far (emphasis on so far) it has not quite happened that way yet.
Who else do the Penguins need more from? Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.
It is kind of fitting for the season that on the night the Penguins get their best goaltending of the season the rest of the team gets completely dominated.
I do not want to say these two are the biggest reasons for the Penguins’ early struggles. Because they are not. But they have also not been a part of the solution. They are both among the worst goalies in the league in save percentage this season and neither one has done anything to inspire confidence that they are the goalie to get the Penguins to the playoffs and actually do something when they get there.
Not so special teams
Given how good the Penguins’ penalty kill was a year ago, and how much talent they can use on their power play, they should have the potential to excel on special teams.
They are not excelling in either area.
As of Wednesday the Penguins rank 24th on both the power play and penalty kill league wide, and it is not a stretch to say that the struggles of these two units have cost them several points (and handed several points to their divisional rivals) so far this season.
The power play not only has not scored enough goals, it is one of the worst units in the league when it comes to generating shot attempts and shots on goals.
Biggest needs rest of the way
Malkin and Letang playing better.
Additional forward depth. Let’s assume Malkin starts to play better and his line clicks, and the Crosby and Aston-Reese lines continue to do their thing. The Penguins would still have a fourth line that would be a total zero in terms of production and impact with Mark Jankowski and Colton Sceviour. I want to believe that Jared McCann can help provide some offense there, but that line is still an issue.
Reason for concern
In their past 29 games they have won just six of them in regulation. They have held a two-goal lead this season in just one of their first 14 games. They have held a lead of any kind for just 130 minutes, the second-lowest total in the league ahead of only Nashville and Buffalo, and Buffalo has only played in 12 games so far this season. They are constantly giving up the first goal and playing catch up. These are starting to no longer become small sample sizes.
Reason for optimism
For as rough as things have looked at times they are still slightly above .500 while getting almost no contributions from two of their three best players (Malkin and Letang), some of the worst goaltending in the league, and dealing with a ton of injuries on defense. All of that while playing the most difficult portion of the schedule and playing mostly against Washington, Boston, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia.
They still have not played a single game against the two worst teams in the division on paper (Buffalo and New Jersey) and still have 16 games remaining against them. There will be a chance to make up some ground and points there as long as they take care of business against the teams they are supposed to beat.