At this point is pretty easy to identify the Pittsburgh Penguins’ biggest problems this season.
The power play is lousy. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have seemingly forgotten how to play hockey for large stretches of time. Injuries to the defense rapidly mounted and are only now starting to reverse. All of those developments are a factor in a rather uninspiring start to the 2020-21 season. You hope — hope! — at some point that the power play gets straightened out and Malkin and Letang get things back on track. Their track records are all strong enough that even at their ages in their mid-30s there is reason to believe they will get better.
But even if they do there are a few other X-factors that are extremely concerning at the moment.
Go back to the start of the season and there were a handful of X-factors that I thought could largely dictate which direction the season goes. If these positions went well, the season was probably going to go well. If they did not, well, it would probably be a very long short season.
The biggest of those X-factors was goaltending. With Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith the Penguins were entering the season with one of the least experienced goaltending duos in the league and their most inexperienced goalie duo to open the season in almost two decades. Neither player had any sort of extended track record, and there was always a chance the most important position on the ice could become a season-changing issue.
That is the case so far.
I am not going to absolve the defense of blame here entirely. It has not been good, and there are way too many mistakes and breakdowns. But the defense has not been so bad that your starting goalie should have an .857 save percentage through their first seven starts. Every goalie is going to face scoring chances, and play behind defensive breakdowns, and have to make some big saves. Right now the Penguins are not getting many saves at all. Between Jarry and DeSmith they are carrying an .865 save percentage for the season, a mark that puts them 31st out of 31 teams in the league. You are not going to win many games with that happening. If it does not turn around, and fast, then pretty much everything else we talk about here is going to be meaningless.
Nothing changes a team more than goaltending. If you have it, an average team becomes good and a good team becomes great. If you do not have it? Just reverse all of that.
I had some concerns here because on paper this roster looked awfully similar to some of those late era Ray Shero-Dan Bylsma seasons where you had two great lines at the top and then two fourth lines trying to hold on after them.
I like what the third and fourth lines are capable of defensively. They are not hurting the Penguins in that regard, and in some ways are pretty good at helping to lock things down. At least as much as this team has been capable of locking things down.
But it is not enough for your third and fourth lines to simply skate to a 0-0 tie every night. You need them to be able to provide some offense, and after a promising start over the first couple of games things have really dried up here.
Over the past six games, for example, the Penguins are scoring just 2.00 goals per 60 minutes when neither Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is on the ice. That is about what they averaged over the previous three full seasons, but the truly concerning thing is how that number has been trending in the wrong direction with each passing game.
Break it down individually...
Jared McCann has not scored a goal in six games and has just a single assist during that stretch.
Brandon Tanev has one point (a goal) in his past nine games.
Mark Jankowski has zero points in his past nine games.
Colton Sceviour was on a four-game scoreless drought before he went out of the lineup after scoring goals in back-to-back games.
Drew O’Connor and Sam Lafferty have combined for one point (an assist) in their five and six games respectively.
Teddy Blueger has not scored a goal in six games and has just two assists since then.
For all of the talk about the superstars not playing like superstars (and to be fair, they are not) they are still the ones providing the majority of the offense right now. The bottom two limes are practically non-existent and that is just not a winning recipe.
The wild cards on defense
Pierre-Olivier Joseph has been a pleasant surprise. Cody Ceci has been better than I expected (minus that bad looking goal against on Saturday where he got beat to the outside).
But the other wild cards here? Problem spots!
John Marino has not yet repeated his rookie performance, but I am willing to be patient with him. He is still young, he has been playing on his offside quite often, and he has not really had a regular defense partner. It is a tough spot.
But the biggest wild card here was always going to be Mike Matheson given who he was traded for, his contract, and the role he was going to be expected to play. I admit, I was intrigued by him before the season for his skating ability and the fact he seemed to bring a dimension the defense needed. So far, it has been a struggle for him. It has only been three games, but they have been three awful games in terms of plays with the puck, mistakes, and penalties. Given how much the Penguins have invested in him they NEED him to be productive. Hopefully this is just a slow start on a new team, in a new setting, with new teammates, with very little prep time before the season. If it is more than that then that trade is going to start looking like an even bigger problem than it already does.