The Pittsburgh Penguins roster has some obvious flaws, but none have gotten more attention this season than the consistently disappointing performance of the team’s bottom-six forward group.
It would not be a stretch to call it lousy, and one of the biggest things holding the team back as it enters the stretch run of the 2022-23 season. They are quite simply not getting anything out of that collection of players and it is holding back what remains an excellent top-six.
It is also an alarming drop from what we saw from the Penguins’ depth a year ago.
First, just look at some numbers.
These are the Penguins’ 5-on-5 numbers when neither Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin are on the ice over three date ranges: The entirety of the 2021-22 season, the first 52 games of the 2021-22 season, and the first 52 games of the 2022-23 season.
The numbers include shot attempt share (CF%), expected goal share (xGF%), scoring chance share (SCF%), high-danger scoring chance share (HDSCF%), and goals scored (GF%).
Last year’s two samples? Excellent. The Penguins were consistently in the black when it came to out-shooting, out-chancing, out-possessing, and out-scoring their opponents when neither Crosby or Malkin were on the ice. Their bottom-six beat other team’s bottom-six groups on a pretty consistent basis.
Completely different story this season where they are not only well below the 50 percent mark across the board, they are getting completely dominated.
The biggest and most important change is obviously in the goal differential, where the Penguins went from a 52-54 percent share of the goals a year ago (a double digit positive goal differential) to only a 42 percent share (a negative double digit goal differential).
That is not only a dramatic swing, it is simply an awful performance.
There are a lot of the same pieces in place, but there have been some changes. They have obviously not been for the better.
The changes started in the regular season when Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon were part of the trade to bring in Rickard Rakell. There was a slight drop in the bottom-six following that trade, but the level of play was still good enough, while Rakell proved to be a significant addition.
The two biggest depth departures after the season were Evan Rodrigues and Brian Boyle.
Both players had outstanding years, and while I do not blame them for parting ways with the 38-year-old Boyle (he was a pleasant surprise that they squeezed out as much productive hockey as they could) losing Rodrigues has been a costly unforced error. Especially when his salary cap hit for this season is only $2 million.
He is on a 20-goal, 50-point pace while posting the same sort of outstanding possession-driving numbers he had in Pittsburgh. He would be the Penguins’ best bottom-six forward BY A MILE this season, and he was sitting right there in front of them. He costs less than what they paid Kasperi Kapanen to return. He is marginally more expensive than Danton Heinen and Josh Archibald.
The Penguins’ problem wasn’t limited salary cap space. It was a poor allocation of the salary cap space they had and a mis-evaluation of talent.
Over the past two years we have seen these types of little mistakes consistently add up into big problems. Losing Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann and replacing them with Brock McGinn. Re-signing Jeff Carter to a long-term deal when it was not necessary. Losing Rodrigues and replacing him with Josh Archibald and Ryan Poehling. Trading John Marino and Mike Matheson and with Poehling being the only forward coming back.
Those things add up.
The Penguins might only be marginally better than they are right now if they had simply retained Rodrigues, but marginal improvement with this team would probably dramatically change our outlook on the season. An extra win or two completely changes the standings and where the Penguins sit.
The other issue has been internal with players regressing or not playing up to expectation.
After a strong showing in his first year with the Penguins, and even a strong first half a year ago, Carter has suddenly aged like milk.
Outside of scoring a handful of goals in a brief stretch, McGinn has brought little to the table. Kapanen and Heinen remain maddeningly inconsistent, with far more valleys than mountains in their play.
Perhaps the most disappointing regression of them all, however, has been the decline of Teddy Blueger.
It has not gotten much attention this season, at least compared to other players like Carter and Brian Dumoulin, but Blueger has had an absolutely dreadful season across the board. Any offense that he once had has completely dried up. Defensively his impacts are not quite as noticeable as they have been in the past. Was Aston-Reese the player propping him up in recent years? Did his injury early in the year hold him back? Is it just the fact he is already into his late 20s and players with his skillset do not have much staying power or as much room to decline from? Whatever it is, he has not been good and it only adds to the problems of the bottom-six.
Keeping the core together was not the problem. It also did not handcuff them in terms of building a deeper, more complete team. What hurt them was throwing a couple of million here and there at the wrong players (Carter, Kapanen, McGinn) and letting better alternatives like Rodrigues get away, while also not giving players that are still here (like, say, a Drew O’Connor) more of a chance to succeed.
This is a front office problem. It is on them to fix it. Not sure how they do that at this point in the season.