We have spent the past few weeks analyzing the Pittsburgh Penguins needs at the trade deadline, and there is a pretty common consensus on the biggest areas of need.
Third-line center/forward depth, and potentially goaltending due to the injury to Tristan Jarry and the inconsistent play of backup goalie Casey DeSmith.
But those are not the only concerns with this Penguins team at the moment.
For the better part of the past two months the Penguins have been one of the league’s worst teams when it comes to suppressing scoring chances, and it is a BIG problem.
For as much as I have been critical of the Penguins’ goaltending situation, and the decision to keep rolling out the same duo that has been a problem in the past two postseasons, goaltending has actually been a pretty big safety net at times this season. That does not mean it is not a concern, and it does not mean they do not have issues to deal with there, but the Penguins’ defensive play the past two months has not been up to a serious contending level.
Let’s start with the new calendar year and go back to January 1. At this point that is a stretch of 17 games for the Penguins.
During that time the Penguins’ defensive metrics during 5-on-5 play are among the worst in the NHL.
Expected goals against per 60 minutes? 30th in the league at 2.98, ahead of only Anaheim and Chicago.
Scoring chances against: 22nd in the NHL at 30.1 against.
High-danger scoring chances against? 30th in the NHL at 15.1 against.
Things have not gotten much better since the start of February, either.
Even worse, just take a look at the Penguins’ rolling 10-game averages of expected goals against and high-danger scoring chances against throughout the season.
First, the expected goals against.
They hit their low-point around the 20-30 game mark, and then have been on a steady upward climb ever since.
It is the same story with high-danger scoring chances against.
Just absolutely trending in the wrong direction, and it is a problem. Especially when compounded with the uncertainty in goal where Jarry has been battling through injuries over the past year and DeSmith has been wildly hit-and-miss with his play.
It is also a dramatic change from what we saw from the Penguins a year ago defensively when they were among the top teams in the league defensively during 5-on-5 play.
So what has caused the rapid decline?
When the struggles first started I thought there was a good possibility that the extended absences of Kris Letang, Jeff Petry, and Jarry were really impacting the team’s defensive play. You can not take a team’s top goalie and its two best all-around defensemen out of the lineup and not expect the same level of play to continue. But even after the returns of Letang and Petry the chances are still being given up.
The one area the Penguins overhauled this offseason was on defense.
John Marino and Mike Matheson were traded, while Petry and Jan Rutta were brought in, and Pierre Olivier-Joseph made the jump to the NHL.
Now that we have more than a half of a season to look at, it is not unfair to question whether or not those moves were the right moves. Especially as Marino has excelled in New Jersey and the Penguins have, at the time being, nothing to show for him in returrn.
The Penguins’ system also needs to be questioned as they tend to lose sight out of situations and get careless (and sometimes borderline reckless) when trying to protect and defend leads.
There is also the harsh reality that a lot of their top defenders (Letang, Petry, Dumoulin) and another key acquisition from the offseason (Rutta) are all on the wrong side of 31. In fact, of the seven defensemen that have played in at least 20 games this season, Marcus Pettersson and Joseph are the only two under the age of 31.
You also can not overlook the fact that the bottom-six forwards also contribute to the issues due to their inability to keep play moving forward into the offensive zone.
No matter what you point the finger at, there are problems and something has to change. Either in terms of the way they play, or in terms of the personnel on the blue line. Because they can not sustain this sort of defensive play and have any hope of advancing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It all just adds another potential layer to the team’s needs as the NHL trade deadline approaches. It is also another thing to look back on from the front office and wonder if they are the right people to lead the construction of the roster.