clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Penguins have concerning trend developing

It is not just the power play struggles, either.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Entering their Tuesday night game against the Arizona Coyotes the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost four games in a row and eight of their past 11 games.

The offense has gone cold, the power play has been completely shut out for more than a month and even the penalty kill has shown some cracks.

Despite all of those problems the one thing the Penguins have at least been able to point to is that at least their 5-on-5 play has been very strong this season, in terms of both goals and an ability to control the pace of play and puck possession. Overall, and for much of the season, they still rank very highly when it comes to their 5-on-5 play.

Combined with some better than expected goaltending, it has at least created a mindset that “if they could just get the power play figured out, everything might actually be fine.”

But I am not even sure that is entirely true anymore as a disturbing trend has emerged in the Penguins’ 5-on-5 play — it is declining as the season has gone on. Rapidly.

The Penguins’ 5-on-5 performance reached a high point following a 2-0 win in Anaheim where their expected goal share climbed to as high as 57 percent, while they had a better than 55 percent share of total shot attempts, scoring chances and were scoring 59 percent of the 5-on-5 goals.

Through the first 10-12 games of the season they were, objectively speaking, one of the best 5-on-5 teams in hockey.

While those numbers have remained somewhat strong, they have started to rapidly decline in the 14 games that have followed. And it is actually starting to get a little ugly.

In the 14 games that have followed that high point on November 8, the Penguins expected goal share has dropped all the way down to just 47.8 percent (24th in the NHL), while they are under 50 percent in total shot attempt share, scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances.

In other words — it is not just the power play unit that is getting outplayed right now. Everything is.

Their 5-on-5 goal different during that stretch is still, shockingly, very good (28-23) but that is almost entirely due to the performance of their goalies. Tristan Jarry, Alex Nedeljkovic and Magnus Hellberg have combined for a staggering .940 save percentage (5-on-5 play only) during that stretch. It is the second best mark in the league from that point, trailing only Connor Hellebuyck and the Winnipeg Jets.

In what might be the most shocking twist of the 2023-24 season, goaltending is the only thing keeping them even remotely afloat right now and is probably the only reason this four-game losing streak is not significantly longer.

That is a problem and a big concern.

Not only because no team ever wants to be that dependent on goaltending, but because I am not sure this goaltending group is capable of maintaining that level of play and being able to continually put the team on its back. No group of goalies should ever be expected to maintain that level of play because it is simply not sustainable. Especially in the current goal-scoring environment in the NHL. When that goaltending performance shows any sort of a regression things could really get ugly for the Penguins if they do not dramatically turn things around in their overall play.

Injuries have definitely played a significant role in this.

Rickard Rakell has been sidelined for a while, and even with his struggles this season is still a legit top-six winger.

Bryan Rust has been in-and-out of the lineup.

They also have some depth issues with Noel Acciari and Matt Nieto being sidelined. For all of their flaws offensively, they do still provide a strong defensive presence.

Taking three or four of your regular forwards out of the lineup will hurt any team. It will especially hurt a team that has very little depth to speak of at both the NHL and prospect levels. The Penguins are forcing average third liners to play in a top-six role, and average AHL players to try and fill out the bottom of the lineup. It’s a problem, and magnifies the lack of quality offensive depth throughout the organization.

At this point I am not sure how you fix those issues.

It might be a coaching issue. But the lineup is thin right now. They could work around salary cap constraints (every team can; there is always a way) but they do not have many tradable assets to bring in more help. The best hope is for the goaltending to keep playing strong until reinforcements get back in the lineup to give them a reasonably healthy team again, and for the power play to start playing up to its end of the bargain and pulling its weight.

This roster was pieced together on the idea that the bottom-six would at least be sound defensively and that the power play could help provide enough offense to complement the top-six. The bottom-six is full of fringe AHLers at this point due to injuries and helping to drag down the overall performance of the team, while the power play has literally not scored in more than a month.

There are a lot of problems. Now they do not even have quality 5-on-5 play to fall back on and put their hope in. They need to figure it out. Very rapidly.

[Data In This Article Via Natural Stat Trick]