There is one thing that I always like to look at with the Pittsburgh Penguins to determine my level of expectation for them.
The quality of their depth.
The Penguins teams in the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era that have gone far in the playoffs and won championships have all had four strong lines, including three capable scoring lines, that have given them a balanced line up.
The teams that have not done as well or fizzled out earlier than expected, have not had that.
When trying to assess that depth I have one simple thing that I look at: How does the team play when neither Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin are on the ice. That is the sign of their depth because it is literally showing what their third-and fourth-lines are capable of doing.
Right now, this team is not getting much from that group of depth players.
First, some current numbers.
When neither of the big two are on the ice the Penguins are being outscored by eight goals (20-28) and are under a 45 percent share in total shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals, and high-danger scoring chances.
Even more concerning is the fact that those numbers are getting worse.
Over the past 10 games those numbers have dropped down to under 40 percent in terms of the shot attempt, expected goals, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, while the goal share has also gotten significantly worse as they have been outscored 3-11 (only a 23 percent share of the goals).
This, quite simply, is not good enough.
A lot of those struggles are directed at the third line, which we have talked about in great detail in recent weeks as Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brock McGinn have struggled to form a capable group. The only thing holding them above water right now even a little bit is the fact that McGinn is on a shooting percentage heater that is at least somewhat masking all of the lines flaws.
The fourth line has been okay defensively, but is not providing much offense at all. It might be a capable fourth line if the third line was better, but that bottom unit is even more exposed when the third line is not providing much value.
Just for some comparisons sake, I went back through the 2007-08 season (as far back as I can on Natural Stat Trick) and looked at all of the Penguins’ 5-on-5 shares through the years when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice.
This table is simply sorted by goals share.
I know seeing a lot of “first round” at the top might put a big dent in my theory here, but I considered those 2020-21 and 2021-22 teams legitimate contenders, and I think based on the way they played in the playoffs they would have had a chance to at least make a decent run if they just had competent goaltending. The 2010-11 team was the team that did not have Crosby or Malkin for half of the season and not at all in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If anything, it just shows how many variables there are in terms of winning.
The 5-on-5 play from your depth players is only part of the equation.
Special teams matters.
The 5-on-5 play from the top-two line matters.
It ALL matters, especially when you put EVERYTHING together.
But you need to have all of it come together at the same time to win, and if you do not have one of those elements, it can hurt you. A lot. That is why the current production (or lack of production) from the depth forwards is so concerning. It is not there, and that is a big element to not have. In other years, it might have been injuries holding them back. Or goaltending. This time it might end up being the lack of quality depth unless they do something to address it.
I think if you look at the teams in the top half of that table you might look back at them and say, “yeah, that team had a really good chance to win.”
Look at the teams on the bottom, especially 2013-14 and 2014-15 teams and you might remember just how bad those bottom-six groups were. It was tough to see them match up with better teams.
This team is, as of this moment, down among that group.
No matter how great your top-tier players are, and the Penguins’ top-tier players are most definitely still great, they are never going to dominate every single night and carry the offense. You have to have more people beyond them that can contribute when they have an off night or get locked up for a few games in the playoffs. It WILL happen. It happens to everybody no matter how dominant or great they are. It is why some of those early 2010 Penguins teams struggled to go further in the playoffs. It is why a team like the Edmonton Oilers can not accomplish much of anything even though they have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at the top of the lineup.
We know the third line is not good and needs a boost, especially at center. But the entire bottom-six could use a lift.
With the top two lines looking dominant, Tristan Jarry looking like he has things figured out, and the defense being pretty good (when everybody is healthy) this is the one thing that is going to be a problem. They need to figure out a way to fix it. It could be the difference between another first round exit or a potential deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.