The Pittsburgh Penguins enter their All-Star break sitting on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Even though they have been collecting points at a pretty strong rate over the past two months, they still have some work to do to climb their way out of the deficit they gave themselves with such a bad start.
As of Wednesday the Penguins are at 51 points in 46 games. That puts them on pace for around 90-91 points over an 82-game season. In almost every NHL season under the current format that would not be good enough for a playoff spot.
By points percentage, they are in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division behind the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers, and in ninth place overall in the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings have the points percentage lead on them for Wild Card spots.
So what would they need to do to catch any of those teams ahead of them and move into a playoff spot?
Let’s do some simple math on this.
At the moment the team that would seem to be the most likely to catch would be the Flyers for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. Not only are they closest team to the Penguins in the standings, they seem like the team that is most likely to slide back from their current spot. It is not only already happening, it is also very likely to continue given A) the talent on the roster on paper, and B) the reality that their starting goalie (Carter Hart) is not coming back any time soon as he faces criminal charges in Canada.
The Flyers are currently on pace for 91.8 points this season and have a five-point lead over the Penguins in terms of raw points. But the Penguins still have four games in hand on the Flyers while also having a pretty significant head-to-head matchup looming at the end of February in Pittsburgh.
So let’s go with the mindset that 92 points would put the Penguins ahead of the Flyers.
That is only 41 points over the remaining 36 games. That is a points percentage of only .569 the rest of the way, which is only marginally better than their current pace for the season.
Just for reference, over the Penguins’ past 25 games they have played at a .600 points percentage.
So, basically, if they can just maintain what they have done over the past quarter of the season they should easily reach that point.
The wild card in this is the Flyers also maintaining their current pace (or slowing down) and the New Jersey Devils also staying where they are in the standings. The Devils — who are currently behind the Penguins by points percentage — are the team that could end up being a problem because their roster on paper IS legitimately good, while there remains the very real possibility that they trade for a goalie and fix their one big Achilles heel. They have also been crushed by injuries to key players all season. Them getting healthy and fixing their goaltending would absolutely put them in play for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.
That would mean 92 points is no longer your target. It needs to be higher.
So let’s look at the potential Wild Card teams.
Toronto is currently in the first Wild Card spot and on pace for 101 points. That is a lot of ground to make up, and may not be realistic at this point in the season.
The Red Wings are a little closer to the pack and on pace for 95.4 points. Not only are they closer in the standings, the Penguins play them two more times (both at home) compared to only one more game against Toronto (on the road). The Red Wings are also the more flawed team.
Getting to 96 points would mean 45 points over the remaining 36 games, which is a .625 points percentage. That would require the Penguins to not only maintain their current level, but also pick up the pace a little bit. That could be asking a lot. Especially given the Penguins current roster flaws as well as the fact their schedule in the second half is brutal in terms of packing a lot of games into not a lot of days. That could be an issue for the oldest team in the league.
So that is the math on it. What exactly does that mean for the roster?
For starters, I think if you have any hope of catching either Philadelphia or Detroit, or staying ahead of New Jersey, you almost have to keep Jake Guentzel. He is their second-best player this season and it is really hard to envision the second half they need without him being a big part of it.
They also need their goaltending to keep playing the way it has. That has been one of the biggest positive developments on the roster this season as Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic have consistently given them a chance to win on most nights.
At this point it is just annoying to keep saying the power play needs to get better, so I will go more broad with it and just simply say they need Evgeni Malkin and Erik Karlsson to be better. In all areas. I am actually not as down on either player as some people are, but I do think it is fair to say their overall play has dipped a bit in recent weeks. Their power play performance has dipped all season. They need Karlsson to play like he did in San Jose a year ago when he won the Norris Trophy. They need Malkin’s line — no matter who his linemates are — to produce more during 5-on-5 play. Those two players are still potential game-changers and we simply have not seen enough of it at this point.
It also would not hurt to find some help from outside in the form of a trade. Bottom-six scoring. A defensive upgrade. Anything, really. I do not think they should be in the market for pure rentals at this point, but if you can add a player with term remaining on their contract it would definitely help.
That is the math on what they need. That is what they need on the ice to get the math to work. It is not going to be easy. It is far from a guarantee. It is within reach.