After missing the playoffs for the first time in 16 years the Pittsburgh Penguins made some pretty sweeping changes to the organization this offseason.
Ron Hextall and Brian Burke were out.
Kyle Dubas came in.
Along with the Dubas hiring was a roster that was completely overhauled to try and change the biggest flaws from the 2022-23 team.
Erik Karlsson was acquired to help fix the power play and boost the defense.
Ryan Graves was added to hopefully be an improvement over Brian Dumoulin.
They also made big changes to the bottom-six by bringing in Noel Acciari, Lars Eller, Matt Nieto, Jansen Harkins and giving Drew O’Connor a more permanent role in the lineup.
Through the first four games of the season a lot of those same depth and power play concerns that existed a year ago are still carrying over to this season even with the new roster. Those problems really showed up in Wednesday’s 6-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
Not only did the third defense pairing of Chad Ruhwedel and Pierre-Olivier Joseph have a brutal night, but the third-and fourth-lines continued to generate zero offense — or even the threat of offense — while the power play continued to fizzle in big moments.
Through the first four games of the season the Penguins’ bottom-six has failed to score even a single goal. Every goal the Penguins have scored so far has either been scored by a member of the top-six, or by Karlsson.
Overall, the Penguins have scored just one goal when neither Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin has been on the ice, and even then the goal was scored by a member of the top-six (Bryan Rust).
Lars Eller is the only member of the bottom-six that even has a single point this season, assisting on Rust’s goal to open the season.
What’s even worse is that those lines are completely non-existent when it comes to generating any sort of chance or pressure. The fourth line had a good shift in Washington. Jeff Carter had a breakaway on Wednesday where he got stopped. But other than that those two lines have not factored into anything offensively.
The numbers are also not pretty.
The Penguins are averaging just 1.73 expected goals per 60 minutes when neither Malkin or Crosby is on the ice, and only 17.8 scoring chances per 60 minutes.
They are allowing 2.26 expected goals and 27.9 scoring chances.
Just for comparisons sake, last year’s bottom-six averaged 2.56 expected goals per 60 minutes and 25.7 scoring chances per 60 minutes. They allowed 2.57 expected goals and 27.7 scoring chances.
That means offensively they have been significantly worse than what last year’s group did (small sample size alert, of course).
Now, there are a couple of things that need to be kept in mind.
The first and most significant thing is that it is only four games. This is no time to be making sweeping evaluations about anything on an individual or team wide basis. We also knew offense from the bottom-six was not going to be its strength. They were seemingly assembled to play lock down defense and not mess up what the top-six and power play hopefully built each night.
But every player there has at least some sort of a track record and expectation, and even though offense was not the expectation this is still an unsustainable level of play from that group. You need more than one assist from your bottom two lines over any four-game stretch during a season. You can ask them to defend and protect leads all you want, but they still need to deliver something offensively if you are going to have any sort of chance for contention.
I am not as down on the third-pairing of Ruhwedel and Joseph as much as everybody else seemed to be on Wednesday. Yes, they were burned for two goals, but overall they have been fine this season and even posted some good underlying numbers. They also spent a lot of time together a year ago and played at a perfectly reasonable level for a third-pairing. They just happened to have their mistakes on Wednesday end up in the back of the net. But everybody struggled for most of that game.
The forward depth is the far bigger question mark and far bigger concern.
This is also where I really would have liked to have seen them find a way to add somebody like Tomas Tatar at the end of the free agency signing period. Not only would it have given them more scoring punch for their third line, it would have also given them another option to slide up into the top-six if and when that is needed in an injury situation.
We have not even talked about the power play yet.
That was another big problem on Wednesday, and outside of the game in Washington where that unit scored a pair of goals they really have not done anything this season to make an impact.
If anything, they have done more to hurt the team by actively losing momentum when they get an opportunity.
I kind of feel like that is what happened on Wednesday. In the first period with the Penguins leading 1-0, they had an early power play with an opportunity to build on that and potentially take an early two-goal lead. They not only failed to score, they never even threatened to score. From the moment that power play ended Detroit completely took over the game and dominated the remainder of the first period and the entire second period putting the Penguins in a 4-1 hole. That is very similar to what happened on opening night against Chicago where the failed power plays seemed to give the Blackhawks momentum. The Penguins ended up going 0-for-3 on Wednesday with the man-advantage, also later failing to score with 10 minutes to play in what was still a 4-2 hockey game.
The top of the lineup is still great, and they have been consistently there over the first four games. Wednesday was also a glimpse into just how special Karlsson still is and what he is capable of in any given game. But they need way more from their scoring depth and their power play. Just like they did a year ago.