The Pittsburgh Penguins losing streak reached three consecutive games on Wednesday night with a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. They are now just 11-11-3 on the season and teetering on the edge of letting the season slip away. The only positive is that two of those three losses at least resulted in them getting a point, and the rest of the Metropolitan Division (outside of the New York Rangers) is also struggling to get its act together.
Let’s check in on some random thoughts after Wednesday’s defeat.
Radim Zohorna has cooled off. Significantly
When Zohorna was first called up to the NHL roster he was a huge addition to the third line and helped transform that group into something impactful. For the first 10 or so games the trio of him, Lars Eller and Drew O’Connor played together they were one of the Penguins’ best lines and one of the most productive lines in the league overall.
It has been a very different story for Zohorna over the past 10 games as his overall impact has dramatically dropped.
It is a very similar progression from what we saw from him during his first stop with the team.
General manager Kyle Dubas talked about that in an interview with the Penguins’ website this week and pointed out that the ability to sustain that initial level of play is a big struggle for players like Zohorna.
“I thought Radim was really good in training camp, and then was really good when he came back through the first stretch. The challenges that often present themselves with these types of players are starting to show now,” Dubas said. “Can you sustain it, and then when it doesn’t go as well, can you claw your way back and find that? I think in Radim’s case, that’s the point where we’re at.”
Zohorna has now gone 14 consecutive games without a goal, has just two assists during that stretch and zero points in his past eight games. Even worse, over his past 10 games his underlying and possession numbers have also significantly regressed, with an expected goal share of only 43 percent and a negative overall share in shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances and total shot attempts.
Part of it is injuries forcing different players into different roles and breaking up a line that was working very well.
And part of it is simply the fact that players like Zohorna and O’Connor are simply fringe NHL players and need to prove they can play with the sustainability that Dubas talked about. At the moment, it is not looking very encouraging and it is once again putting a significant dent in the Penguins’ depth.
The bottom-six is still doing okay from a goals for and against perspective (a 6-3 goals edge over the past 10 games when neither Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is on the ice) but the expected goals and scoring chance numbers are right back down to where they were a year ago. That is not good, and if that continues the goals for and against numbers will eventually regress back to that level as well.
Can the Penguins turn it around like the Oilers have?
If you think the Penguins’ start is disappointing, the Edmonton Oilers were a top Stanley Cup contender that opened their season with a 2-9 record and eventually fired head coach Jay Woodcroft.
Despite their struggles, there were some encouraging signs in their play — especially their 5-on-5 numbers — that suggested a turnaround could happen at any time, and not just because of the coaching change.
All of their underlying numbers were among the best in the league, and the results were not matching up with the process we were seeing on the ice.
Well, all of a sudden the Oilers have won five games in a row and are 8-3-0 in their past 11 games, making a rapid climb up the Western Conference standings.
They simply needed their goaltending to improve to get everything back on track.
For the Penguins, it has been a pretty similar story. Their 5-on-5 numbers have been great. The penalty kill, up until Wednesday, has been solid. The goaltending has been better than anybody could have hoped.
While the Oilers problem was goaltending, the Penguins’ is the power play.
Sometimes one aspect of a team can hold it back, and when that aspect gets fixed everything turns around.
The problem for the Penguins is that while the power play is the biggest issue by far, the rest of the team is starting to slide backwards a little bit. The 5-on-5 numbers have regressed over the past month, injuries are mounting and magnifying the lack of depth, and the fact the goaltending has been so good and the overall record is so ordinary is very concerning. If the goaltending can maintain that level of play, it could be a good sign for when — or if — the power play gets itself figured out. But there is also no guarantee the goaltending can maintain that level of play.
At some point Kyle Dubas needs to do something to spark the team
What that something is can certainly be up for debate.
A coach firing? Even if it is not Mike Sullivan and just an assistant or two it would not be unwarranted.
A trade? Salary cap space is tight and the number of trade assets in the organization are limited, but neither thing is a dealbreaker in trades given how wild trade values can sometimes be.
Both? One of those things on their own might not be enough to fix everything.
Whatever it is this team is struggling and needs something to spark it. It needs a wakeup call. Simply shuffling line combinations and defense pairings is not going to be enough. They might need a new voice or two at the top. They need more depth. They need all of it to get things going back in the correct direction.
[Possession and underlying numbers data in this post via Natural Stat Trick]