With a 6-7-3 record through their first 16 games (and a terrible record over their past 41 games) there are pretty clearly some concerns with the Pittsburgh Penguins right now.
The top line has been awful, the penalty kill has struggled, Tristan Jarry has been disappointing, and Kris Letang has been uncharacteristically bad to start the year. Some of these things will correct themselves (hopefully?). But some of them might not.
As we head into a big three-game in four-night stretch this week, let’s rank the current areas of concern.
1. Bryan Rust
When this past offseason began I had rust at the bottom of the priority list when it came to re-signing the pending free agents. As good as he has been over the past few years, and for as big of a role as he played in two Stanley Cup winning teams, he was the potential investment that scared me the most. Mostly because I did not think he would age well, while if he were to hit the open market he is the type of player I would have pegged as a high-risk long-term investment.
While Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are older, they are much better players and starting from a much higher point of production and ability. Their decline will not look like the decline of a player like Rust, who does not have as much room to fall from.
Early on, Rust has struggled.
The production has not been there despite getting all of his ice time with one of Sidney Crosby or Malkin, and he just looks lost at times. It is not working for him at 5-on-5, it is not working for him on the power play, and if this turns out to be the beginning of the end for him it creates another need for a top-six winger.
2. Tristan Jarry
This is a HUGE year for Jarry. Not only because the Penguins need him to be good, but because he needs to be good as a pending unrestricted free agent.
He has not been great.
He enters play on Thursday with a .900 save percentage on the team and has really struggled over the past couple of weeks, losing starts to Casey DeSmith.
This is such a concern because for as long as Jarry has been the Penguins’ goalie, we still have no idea what type of goalie he actually is. He has two All-Star game appearances under his belt, and he has shown flashes of being a top-half of the league starter, but he has also had just as many stretches where he became a problem.
Goaltending has been this team’s biggest Achilles heel in the playoffs the past two years and they keep running it back with the same duo.
DeSmith is fine in short stretches, but if you need to rely on him to be a consistent starter you are going to have problems. Jarry has to be good, and we just do not know if he is.
3. The bottom-six
These two lines give me bad vibes back to the 2014 and 2015 era Penguins. You know the teams. When Lee Stempniak, Daniel Winnik, Zach Sill, and whatever collection of guys they could throw together into a third and fourth line.
Jeff Carter needs to score goals to be valuable, and he is not really doing that anymore.
Ryan Poehling and Josh Archibald are just the classic “remember some guys” guys filling space, and Kasperi Kapanen can not even consistently crack the lineup or get on the ice even though he is accounting for more than $3 million against the salary cap.
With the Crosby line struggling, and the third-and-fourth lines being mostly non-existent, the Penguins are back to being a one-line team (Malkin’s line) for the time being.
Given the nearly $6 million they have invested in Kapanen and Jan Rutta it seems like a real missed opportunity to have added somebody here that could have really extended the lineup and built up some depth.
4. Special teams
This has been one of the biggest issues for the Penguins this season.
The penalty kill, which has been a strength in recent years, has been among the worst in the league and is spotting opponents at least one goal on most nights.
The less said about the power play at this point, the better. It does not pass the eye test or the numbers test.
It is frustrating because the Penguins’ 5-on-5 numbers are at least somewhat decent and should have resulted in a better record to this point. But the special teams are absolutely sinking them.
The personnel changes on the PK give me some concern about their ability to bounce back, and the power play struggles are not a new issue at all. They need more from these two groups.
5. The defense as a whole
This was the one big change the Penguins made to their roster this offseason, sending out John Marino and Mike Matheson, while bringing in Jeff Petry, Rutta, and promoting Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
The early returns?
Petry has been okay, but he has not really made the impact I originally hoped for, while Ty Smith, the player they got for Marino (who is excelling so far in New Jersey) is buried in the minor leagues.
Then there is the continued decline of Brian Dumoulin who no longer appears to be a viable option as a top-pairing defender.
All of this has led to some issues with defensive zone coverage, the penalty kill, and everything involving their ability to suppress shots and prevent goals. It’s a problem.
6. The Play of Kris Letang
I am going to put him in his own category because it is kind of a big deal.
On one hand, I DO think Letang will bounce back. He still has the skills to be an elite player, and he was an elite player as recently as this past season. I do not think he just suddenly fell off a cliff or hit a wall and ran out of steam.
But they made a huge investment in him, and they need him to be good.
Not only because of the investment, but because they do not have another option as a No. 1, big-minute, all-situations defenseman.
They need it to be him, and right now he is off to an awful start.
Right now I am willing to say it is just a bad stretch.
But if we start getting closer to the halfway point of the season and he has not snapped out of it? That could be a big problem.
7. The Top line
Yes they have been bad lately.
They also deserve criticism for that level of play.
But I also am not overly worried abou their play long-term. At least as it relates to Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. My earlier concerns about Rust remain, but we know Rickard Rakell can play in this spot if they want to go back to that.
In the end, this group should — emphasis on should — be fine. They are not a major concern for me.