It’s time to play America’s favorite game (not really): big deal, little deal, no deal. Where we take a dive into all the perceived problems and struggles around the Pittsburgh Penguins and break down it if matters a lot, a little or not at all. Let’s jump in!
—Is anything unimportant when a team is 2-7-2 in the last 11 games?
The Penguins have long had a pre-Thanksgiving swoon before pulling the nose up and going on a run, so a slow start is nothing new. But at this point with the team’s age and general form, I don’t think you can wash away any concerns as not a little troubling right now.
—The first line woes
Bryan Rust has no points in the last eight games, and only two (1G+1A) in the last 10. Jake Guentzel was on the ice for all five goals against last night. Sidney Crosby only has three assists in the last 10 games. Is there trouble in paradise? What gives, Mike Sullivan? After last night’s loss to the Maple Leafs, here was the coach’s perspective on his top line:
“Obviously, they’ve been such a good line for us for so long. I think the last few games, it’s been a bit of a struggle for them. But it’s not from a lack of effort. We’re trying to help them through the process. But the standard is so high, the expectations are so high, because they’ve been such a good line for so long. They usually control the game for the majority of the time when they’re out there. So we as a coaching staff are trying to help them through the process, we’re trying to work through it with them together. Just giving them some things, some insights, maybe that we see that might help. But obviously, we think they’re capable of a lot. So we’re going to work through it with them.”
The second line of Jason Zucker, Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell are all playing so well together, the Pens don’t have much a choice than to work the top line through it and hope they start keeping the puck out of their net and going in the right one. History says that’s a good bet to make, Guentzel-Crosby-Rust has driven results and should do so again soon. It does stand out when they are off, and Rust being back with his common two linemates has been a surprisingly flat and unexciting result to this point.
The Pens haven’t received exceptional goaltending, but they also have not deserved it in terms of defensive breakdowns plaguing just about every player on the ice. The main issue with the goaltending may be the status/sharpness of Tristan Jarry. He’s been well enough to serve as the backup (and play on back-to-backs when needed) but last week Jarry said he was dealing with a minor injury. Sullivan said Jarry was fine. Either way, when the starting goalie isn’t 100% with his form for whatever reason, that’s always a little bit troubling. Hopefully he is past it now and ready to play like the first five games of the season.
—The Kasperi Kapanen conundrum
It was surprising and unnecessary from the beginning to give Kasperi Kapanen a qualifying offer and then a two-year contract at a high salary, but now it looks like the worst case scenario. Now healthy up front for the first time all season, the Pens made Kapanen a healthy scratch again, after playing him out of pure necessity in very limited minutes for a few games due to having no other options. Who knows how this ends, but any option looks very painful and like a huge mistake for Pittsburgh. The team can’t afford to have a $3.2 million non-factor through 2024, but that’s exactly the corner they’ve painted themselves into.
—Bad starts and finishes to periods
The brevity of this exchange from Sullivan’s presser last night really says it all:
On if there is any particular concern on his part at the starts and finishes of periods, as there seems to be a lot of goals allowed in the first and last minutes: “Yes.”
The Pens are getting CRUSHED right now by allowing an early or late goal in periods. It can wreck an entire game. Last night’s second period against Toronto was the perfect microcosm of the season so far for Pittsburgh. They played pretty well, but two little breakdowns and not getting a save caused an early and a late goal, which erased all of their progress for what otherwise would have been a great period. They have to get that figured out.
—Fixing Kris Letang
Kris Letang is not off to a good start this season, and this a big deal because there are not many options to help him get on track. Brian Dumoulin is an abject disaster and no longer the capable first pair defender who helped shore up so much for the first line (which also probably explains from the talking point above why the first line is on the ice for an increased amount of goals against). Letang’s performance will likely improve at some point, but it is very disconcerting when he is off his game. He’s such an important player that when Letang isn’t right, it’s almost certain the Pens won’t be right either. That’s been the case in the last 10 games, and I don’t envy the coaching staff to figure out how they can drive improvement from Letang and the defensive group at large.
Over the last 11 games of the struggle portion of the Pens’ season (2-7-2 record, let’s remind), the power play is 5-for-36. That’s a meager 13.9%, good for only 29th in the NHL. By any definition that’s painful, but considering the talent involved, it’s downright inexcusable. Of the five power play goals scored, Rickard Rakell has two and Jeff Petry has one — and those are two players who don’t typically play in the top group (though they have at times in this stretch). Sidney Crosby has no power play points in the last 11 games.
It’s a very sad state of affairs for that group, they look like they’re out of ideas, directionless in their often stagnant movement. They don’t run a 1-3-1, they don’t really have an idea of what the objective is as to what they’re looking for or who they’re trying to feed. It’s a failure of coaching and player execution right now. Something has to give, and through confidence, luck or bounces it can’t and won’t stay down forever. But the power play continually needs to be addressed and tweaked, which just feels like more trouble than it should be for this team.