The Pittsburgh Penguins are 10 games into the 2023-24 NHL season and will play game No. 11 on Tuesday night against the Anaheim Ducks. While 10 games is not a huge sample size, it can give us at least some idea of what the team will look like this season, what its flaws are, where its strengths are and what might be ahead for the remainder of the season.
So far, things have gone about as expected and looked very similar to what we saw for extended periods of the 2022-23 season.
The top two lines are generally very good.
The power play and goaltending are inconsistent.
There are some concerns with depth scoring.
Their actual goal numbers do not match their expected goal numbers that are again among the best in the NHL.
They lose to teams they should be expected to beat.
All of that has led to a 4-6-0 start that is not exactly the most encouraging beginning to the season. It is also the second-worst start through 10 games in the Sidney Crosby era, beating out only his rookie season when they won just one of their first 10 games.
While none of that is terribly encouraging, there are at least some reasons for optimism that things can get turned around in relatively short order, even beyond a 10-goal outburst against one of the worst NHL teams of the modern era.
For one, the Penguins seem to have stumbled upon the makings of a competent third line with Lars Eller centering Radim Zohorna and Drew O’Connor. Having another line that can push play and make it so you are not relying on just the same six forwards at the top of the lineup to provide offense is a big development, and one that could have big implications this season.
They also showed that they are at least willing to make a performance-based scratch and send Jeff Carter to the press box. It might have taken a year too long, but that is better than not happening at all.
But there is still a lot of work to do to get back to the playoffs, and the slow start has certainly put them in a brutally tough spot simply from a numbers perspective.
Let’s look at it from a practical matter.
Entering play on Tuesday the Penguins have eight points in 10 games. If we assume that it will take at least 95 points (generally a safe number for a playoff spot) to clinch at least a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, that means the Penguins need to collect at least 87 points over their remaining 72 games of the season.
That would be a points pace of .604 during starting from Tuesday.
To reach last year’s playoff minimum of 92 points, you would need a .583 mark.
Even if you wanted to set an even higher bar and really be safe, getting to 98 points (a number that would almost certainly be enough 99 percent of the time) would require a .625 points percentage the remainder of the way.
Any of those should — emphasis on SHOULD — be a manageable number for a team that has four future Hall of Famers on it, all of whom are still playing at a reasonably high level.
It is also a mark the Penguins have consistently been able to play at.
I went back and looked at every 10-game start to the season in the Crosby era, where the Penguins were in terms of record at that point, and how they finished the season after the 10th game.
In 13 of the previous 18 seasons the Penguins managed to play at a .604 points per pace or better over the final 72 games of the season. Even in seasons where they got off to slow starts through the first 10 games.
Which brings me to the next point — the Penguins, especially in recent years, have consistently played better as the season has gone on. In each of the past four seasons the Penguins stumbled out of the gate, recording points percentages of .600 or lower through the first 10 games of the season.
In each season their points percentage over the remaining 72 games has jumped by at least .044 points. That is a significant jump, and suggests that it tends to take them a while to really get rolling in each season.
Obviously it did not work out a year ago or improve enough to get back in the playoffs — for a variety of reasons — but they still played at a significantly better pace after the 10-game mark.
Given the team’s underlying numbers, as well as the internal improvement that should still happen (Tristan Jarry should play better; the power play should be better; they seem to have found a third line) I think there is still reason to believe that can happen again. It just has to start happening really soon.