When the Pittsburgh Penguins play the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night it will be their 40th game of the season. That will put them, if you can believe it, almost exactly at the halfway point of the 2023-24 regular season.
Let’s talk about where they are, the kind of team they are, where they are going and what they need.
In a lot of ways it is the team we expected
Even after the addition of Erik Karlsson I am not sure expectations changed too wildly for this team. It was seen as a potential — and maybe likely — playoff team that could be capable of maybe winning a round or two depending on how some variables played out (goaltending specifically).
It was a roster that still had high-level players at the top, questionable scoring depth, and wild cards in goal.
At the halfway point they are a bubble playoff team with high-level players playing well at the top with a bottom-six that does not score much.
The power play is worse than expected.
The goaltending has been better than expected.
Kyle Dubas’ first offseason has produced a mixed bag of results
I think the most optimistic thing about this team coming into the season was the hiring of Kyle Dubas to replace the Ron Hextall and Brian Burke duo. Even if you were not the biggest fan of what Dubas produced in Toronto, he still provided something that we never seemed to get with Hextall and Burke — a sense of a plan, some direction and the ability to at least build an organization.
In his first offseason Dubas ended up overturning a significant portion of the roster, adding Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Lars Eller, Ryan Graves, Noel Acciari, Matt Nieto, Jansen Harkins and Alex Nedeljkovic to the team, while also shipping out a ton of bad contracts.
The results on the ice have been mixed.
Karlsson has not been the 100-point, Norris-caliber player that he was a year ago, but I don’t think he has been bad or a disappointment. Especially at how little they paid to get him. I have actually mostly loved him at 5-on-5 play and think he has been as advertised. Especially when he has not been tied down next to Graves. I do think his power play presence has been underwhelming due to his lack of a shoot-first mentality at times and the overall inconsistencies (and failures) of that unit. Everybody on the ice during the power play needs to share some of the blame in that.
Nedeljkovic has been by far the biggest surprise addition. They needed to change something in net given the past few years, and with Tristan Jarry returning the backup ended up being the change. I had low expectations for Nedeljkovic given what we saw from him during his time in Detroit, but he has been nothing short of sensational at times and has even made it so Jarry can get more time off. I think that is something that can — and has — made everybody better. When Jarry is healthy he has showed the ability to be a pretty good NHL goalie. But he hasn’t been consistently healthy. Giving him a reduced work load and somebody that can take some of the pressure off of him physically — while also pushing him in terms of performance — has been, I think, significant in his bounce back season. Goaltending has been a huge part of the Penguins hanging in the playoff race and both players have more than exceeded expectations.
Smith seemed like one of the safer additions, but he has been a little underwhelming. But maybe expectations were a little too high? At this point Smith is what he is as an NHL player. He will be streaky. He will have short burts of big offense followed by extended droughts. That has been his story the entire time he has been in the NHL — even including last season in Vegas — and it is a very common thing with all NHL players. He had a great start, has gone cold since, and has mostly just been, for lack of a better word, “a guy.” I do think he can, and will, get hot again, but I wonder if that happens in Pittsburgh or somewhere else?
The bottom-six additions have been exactly as advertised. They mostly defend well. They do not score. That is better than the alternative we saw a year ago of not scoring and not defending well.
Then we get to Graves. That was easily the most controversial of the offseason additions given the term and money, and halfway through the season it is looking like a big whiff. My source of optimism on that deal was that Graves, while unspectacular on his own, had shown an ability to play with top-pairing defenders in Colorado and New Jersey and at least produced solid results playing next to the likes of Cale Makar and Dougie Hamilton. Why couldn’t he be the new Brian Dumoulin and handle business next to Letang or Karlsson?
Well, simply put, because he is not peak-era Brian Dumoulin.
Letang and Karlsson have produced their worst results playing alongside Graves and been significantly better playing next to, quite literally, any other defender on the roster. It just looks like a big swing and a miss.
The second half outlook
The Penguins’ start to the season gave me a lot of optimism, then there was a lull about a month-and-a-half in that seemed to be a major step backwards, and now they seem to be back on the upswing.
Their 5-on-5 numbers remain consistently good and are back on the rise.
Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are still an elite top-line duo. Evgeni Malkin is starting to get back into beast-Geno mode. Rickard Rakell is finding the back of the net again. Bryan Rust is back healthy. The goaltending remains strong. Drew O’Connor and Valterri Puustinen are bringing a spark and starting to look like NHL players.
Given their recent stretch of play, both based on their record and their underlying numbers, this is starting to look more and more like a playoff team. But they have to avoid those random slip-ups against divisional teams and bottom-tier teams that cost them a year ago and early this season. You can not drop games to Montreal, Anaheim and Chicago. You can not dominate games against divisional teams and lose due to goaltending the way they did so many times against the New York Islanders a year ago. Stick with the process that is working right now and make some necessary additions. Speaking of.
What the Penguins need
The biggest need is going to come from within, and that is the power play. It has to be better. There is too much talent on that group to be as inconsistent and at times flat out bad as it has been. It has single handedly cost them games by both being unable to score and by giving up costly shorthanded goals. It needs to make a positive impact and difference, and nothing will improve the team overall more than that.
When it comes to outside additions, I think the immediate answer people have is bottom-six forward help. I get it. The bottom-six does not score a lot. But it is also not really hurting them at this point. When neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice this season during 5-on-5 play the Penguins are still outscoring teams by a 25-23 margin, a noticeable improvement from that group a year ago. The underlying numbers still leave a lot to be desired, but it is not crushing them.
The far more pressing need in my view is more help on defense. We have already discussed the issues with Graves. But I also think they need more help beyond that top-four group. I want to like Pierre-Olivier Joseph, but the more he plays the more he gets exposed. Chad Ruhwedel is probably best served as a No. 6 or 7 on a contending team. John Ludwig and Ryan Shea are literal guys and roster filler. At this point they have three defensemen I trust — Letang, Karlsson and Marcus Pettersson. They need more help there, and I am not sure how much longer they can wait to try and find some.
Maybe another forward to add some more scoring punch at forwrad and a defenseman need to be at the top of Kyle Dubas’ shopping list.