There is a lot to like about the Pittsburgh Penguins right now.
The top two lines with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are rolling with the right wingers for each center. Jake Guentzel and Rickard Rakell are perfectly complementing Crosby, while Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust work well with Malkin.
Tristan Jarry shook off his early season struggles and is playing his way to a big contract extension.
The special teams units have also both done a complete 180 from where they were earlier in the season with the penalty kill being on a roll and the power play taking on an entirely new dimension with Rakell moving to the top unit.
When all put together it gives the Penguins a team that is 15-3-2 in its past 20 games and has rapidly climbed the standings, now sitting just two points back of the New Jersey Devils and only four points back of the Carolina Hurricanes for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They could even close that gap down to two points on Thursday night if they can beat the Hurricanes.
There are not many obvious flaws on the team right now. Except for one pretty significant flaw that I think a lot of us were concerned about from the very start of the season.
That flaw is the third line. That has been the one line that has consistently struggled to generate much traction this season and is really struggling to keep its head above water. I think even the fourth line has been a little more manageable after the return of a healthy Teddy Blueger.
But the third line? Not getting much from that group, which has recently consisted of Kasperi Kapanen, Jeff Carter, and Brock McGinn.
It is weird because individually there are some elements that I like about it. I like the way Kapanen has played since returning to the lineup off of his stretch of healthy scratches. McGinn is a player that I have always been kind of indifferent to, and have even looked at as an undesirable contract. but he has scored some big goals this season and is even on 23-goal pace per 82 games at the moment (yes, with an 18.8 percent shooting percentage; I know).
But the line as a whole? As a collective unit? It just does not work.
In Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the New York Rangers it was the one line that was consistently caved in statistically. While the Crosby line, Malkin line, and even the Blueger line badly outchanced the Rangers and were significantly better in terms of expected goals (more than a 60 percent share), the Carter was completely run over. In 10 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time they lost the shot attempt share 3-7, were outchanced 2-6, were down 0-2 in high-danger scoring chancers, had a 14 percent share of the expected goals, and were outscored 0-1.
They were bad.
Over the past 10 games it is a very similar story. During that stretch they have played a little more than 78 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time their numbers are:
- Shot attempt share: 40.9 percent
- Scoring chance share: 41.6 percent
- High danger scoring chance share: 36.6 percent
- Expected goal share: 40.6 percent
- Goals for/goals against: 3-3 (50.0 percent)
It is nice they have scored some goals, but the way they get out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced is not a sustainable recipe for success for them as a group. That third line is extremely important. I have said this exact thing before, but every Penguins team that has won the Stanley Cup in the Crosby-Malkin-Kris Letang era has had a major contributor on its third line, whether it was Jordan Staal in 2009 or the Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel line in 2016 and 2017.
Part of the numbers is almost certainly a matter of usage. That trio does take a lot of defensive zone draws and are not always put into a position to score. But the same thing is true of the Teddy Blueger, Josh Archibald, and Ryan Poehling line. And do you know what? They take an even higher percentage of defensive zone draws. You know what else? Their numbers are not as bad. They are not great, mind you, but they have a higher expected goal share (45 percent) and are even in high-danger scoring chances. When Blueger and Archibald are together, with any player as the third member of that unit over that stretch, they are nearly 50 percent in expected goals (48 percent) and a little over 50 percent in terms of high-danger chances with an even high percentage of defensive zone draws.
They have not scored during those minutes, but they are not giving up anything, either, and are at least helping to push the play a little bit more. The third line is not even doing that.
The change that needs to get made is probably with Carter. Because he is the one player out of that group that does not really seem to be showing much of anything individually. I loved the trade for him, I loved the way he played for the first part of his time here, but that contract extension is just not working out the way Ron Hextall had to have hoped it would. He has scored some goals as a member of the Penguins, but if he is NOT scoring goals there really is not much of anything that he is doing to make an impact and help the team win.
Do you swap him and Blueger on the third and fourth lines?
Do you trade for another center and make Carter a rather expensive healthy scratch?
If the Penguins are going to be serious Stanley Cup contenders I do think it is something that is going to have to be addressed. I am just not sure how significantly. I am of the belief that if you were willing to bring back Malkin, Letang, Rakell, and Rust that you are 184 percent in win now mode and can not worry about dealing a late 20s first-round pick or any mid-round pick or any prospect. None of those players or assets are going to significantly impact a future rebuild. You have to strike now and capitalize while you still can.
Could they figure out a way to get into thet Ryan O’Reilly or Bo Horvat market as a rental? The salary cap space would be problematic, but as NHL teams (including the Penguins) have shown time and time again there is ALWAYS a way to get around that.
Max Domi would be on the second-tier of rental centers, and while he would come cheap in terms of assets and can provide some offense he is a mess defensively.
What about old friend Oskar Sundqvist if the Red Wings continue to slide out of contention?
Whatever the solution might end up being this should be Hextall and company’s biggest focal point right now in-season. Figuring out a way to improve on Carter on the third line, and improving the third line in general. It is the biggest clear weakness on the roster at the moment. It needs to be better.