There was a 24 hour period about a month-and-a-half ago where the Pittsburgh Penguins looked like they were going to have a fully healthy roster following the season debut of Evgeni Malkin. That did not last very long as Bryan Rust, Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Danton Heinen, and Jason Zucker have all missed multiple games (and in some cases, a significant number of games) since then.
This seems important because there has been some concern at times over the past couple of weeks about the way the Penguins have played, especially as they have lost back-to-back games against Toronto and Carolina and at times appeared to be a little more reckless in their style of play.
The easy narrative to follow is Malkin’s return and the impact his style of play has on the team. Statistically speaking, there has been very little change in the Penguins’ overall performance since his return to the lineup, at least in terms of giving up shot attempts, shots, and scoring chances. If you want to see the Penguins allowing more odd-man rushes and scoring chances, then that is what you are going to see if you have already made your mind up on that happening. But the reality is this: Before Malkin’s return the Penguins were allowing 25.5 scoring chances against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, and they are allowing 26.4 since his return. They were allowing 9.7 high-danger chances before, and 10.3 since. Slightly worse? Yes. But not dramatically so. All of those numbers are still among the top-10 in the entire NHL. Penguins goalies are also facing fewer rush attempts than they did prior to Malkin’s return.
Now, this is not to say that the Penguins have not had some issues recently. They have. But an overlooked aspect to all of this is that they have spent the past month-and-a-half playing without some of their best defensive forwards. Since January 8 Blueger, Aston-Reese, Heinen, and Zucker have combined to miss 41 man games due to injury. That is a lot, and they are not minor absences, either.
Zucker may not score enough goals to satisfy most people, but he is a good player that has played well this season in just about every other area. If you look at the Penguins’ forwards this season those four are among their best defensive contributors for the season.
Just looking at 5-on-5 play, they all rank among the top-seven forwards on the team in expected goals against per 60, scoring chances against per 60, high-danger scoring chances against per 60, and total shot attempts against per 60 minutes.
Zucker has missed 17 of the past 18 games, Blueger has missed 11 of those games, and Aston-Reese and Heinen both missed six games. That is a lot of defensive ability and big shut down minutes leaving the lineup. Aston-Reese and Heinen have been back for a couple of weeks now, but Blueger and Zucker are still significant absences right now.
What has really hurt, though, has been the penalty kill, an area where Blueger excels.
Go back to that same January 8 date (Malkin’s return game) and the Penguins’ PK has a success rate of just 79 percent, 16th in the NHL during that stretch. Since Blueger went out of the lineup it has dropped down to 76 percent.
Break it down even further and to an even more micro level, since January 8 the Penguins have lost seven games, with three of those losses coming in overtime or a shootout. Five of those seven losses have been by just a single goal. Do you know what their PK success rate is in those seven losses? It is only 70 percent, a mark that would be among the absolute worst in the league over a full season. The PK has been a huge part of the Penguins’ success this season and that is a significant swing over the past month-and-a-half, and it has had a significant impact in some results.
The Penguins could definitely tighten some things right now defensively, but some of these concerns might not be as bad as they might seem. Blueger’s absence creates a major hole in the middle of your most trusted shutdown line during 5-on-5 play and a significant problem for your penalty kill. Zucker, while not a top-line scorer anymore, is still a reliable player in the middle-six spot that can create and push possession. We should see what they look like with them back in the lineup (along with a healthy Aston-Reese and Heinen) before we really start to worry about this team. The big picture outlook this season is still extremely strong and encouraging.