The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the middle of their second extended losing streak of the season, dropping their sixth game in a row on Thursday night against the Vegas Golden Knights. It was an ugly start followed by a better effort in the second and third periods that was ultimately too little, too late.
It continues what has been a wildly inconsistent season filled with extreme peaks and valleys.
They started 4-0-1, lost seven in a row, were unbeatable for nearly two months, and now can not seem to do anything right over the past six games. It has pushed them down to the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff race in what has become an incredibly tight race, especially in the Metropolitan Division.
And for the second time this season, I am sitting here thinking about why things are not as bleak as they might seem.
And they do seem bleak right now.
Over the past couple of weeks we have seen the Penguins have seen third period leads slip away, got blown out in two games (New York Islanders and Vegas), blew a 4-0 first period lead, and then failed to secure a point in the Winter Classic.
The blown leads against Carolina, Boston, and Detroit are tough points to leave on the table, and I am actually more bothered by those than I am the bad game on Long Island and the bad start on Thursday. Sometimes you just have an off day. Sometimes the other team just gets a jump on you and beats you.
But falling apart against Detroit, not getting at least a point in Boston, a complete inability to play 3-on-3 with the skill they have? That’s just bad situational hockey.
Ultimately I think the Penguins problems at the moment fall under two categories.
The ones that can be resolved with some patience.
And the ones that are more of a bigger picture problem that will require general manager Ron Hextall to actually do something.
When it comes to the former, the Penguins are currently playing without some fairly important players, especially on their blue line. Not having Kris Letang and Jeff Petry has taken away two of your top-four defenders. Letang has been inconsistent at times this season and Petry has not made quite the impact some of us expected, but they are still top-four defenders and they are still the Penguins’ two best all-around defensemen. Not having them in the lineup not only takes those two away, it increases the roles of players that should not be in bigger roles. It is bigger minutes for Marcus Pettersson, it forces Brian Dumoulin and Jan Ruuta to play more, and it just creates more problems that you did not expect to have.
I know the Penguins played some of the games on this current losing streak with Letang, but I still am willing to bet the Penguins might have an extra point or two over this stretch if both of them are in their for all six games.
Then they developed a new problem in the Winter Classic with Tristan Jarry leaving with an injury. Casey DeSmith is an uninspiring backup to begin with, but when you need him to start against top teams (or consistently) it becomes a problem.
All three players are going to be back at some point. That can be fixed.
The Penguins are also going through a stretch right now where the top line, and especially Jake Guentzel, are struggling. This is also a temporary issue. They need this line to be better. They need Guentzel to be better. And they will. Even the league’s top players are prone to slumps and stretches of bad play, and right now the Penguins’ top line is going through that.
One way or another, they will get through this.
But that slump does expose one of the bigger long-term problems that will require some extra help from the front office.
The lack of depth.
This is why scoring depth is so important. You need that quality third scoring line and some occasional contributions from your fourth line to be there to pick up the slack when the top players DO struggle. That is the difference between bad teams and good teams and the difference between good teams and great teams.
Go back through any Stanley Cup winning season in the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era. In every single one of those years the Penguins went through stretches (in both the regular season and playoffs) where their top stars did not produce. What got them through it was a bottom-six that could pick up the slack and balance things out.
This team simply does not have that and will only go as far as the top-tier players will take them.
When they excel, the Penguins win.
When they do not, the Penguins lose.
If your solution to that is, “well the stars just need to play better all the time,” you are not being realistic. There is only so much they can do, and for the most part this season, they have done it.
Now it is time for the front office and coaching staff to figure out a way to give them some help.
This is where the problems become tougher to fix, because how do you overhaul an entire bottom-six while also getting some additional defensive help at this point in the season? Especially when salary cap space is limited and trade assets are scarce?
Ideally, all of their focus would be put into upgrading on Jeff Carter with a center that can drive that line, with the hopes that if they can find that it can help Kasperi Kapanen a little more. It also might be time to give players like Drew O’Connor more of an opportunity and a longer leash. At this point I am not sure somebody like him is going actually be worse than the current options.