Before I start: yes, I’m aware that the Penguins have just won back-to-back Stanley Cups, and yes I’m aware Penguin fans shouldn’t be allowed to complain about anything for the next 10 years.
That being said, there are many Pens fans, myself included, that have been worried with the Penguins performance throughout this season, thus I have decided to look into what has been causing this horrific season.
Loss of talent
It is not a huge surprise that the Penguins are’t playing like the back-to-back champions they are (and yes, I am going to say that as much as I can) considering the players that moved on following their last cup win back in July.
Not to mention some extra depth players, the Penguins lost Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, and long time starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
These are major losses, especially when your only ready prospects that could fill in right away are Daniel Sprong and Tristian Jarry, who are solid prospects, but by no means project to be franchise shifting pieces.
Of course management did go out and try to patch this wholes in the lineup, but with the limited cap space they had, they couldn’t find replacements of the same caliber as the ones they lost. That is unless you believe Ryan Reaves, Greg McKegg, Riley Sheahan and Matt Hunwick are equal to the aforementioned players,
This massive loss in talent, especially when you consider the number of players that moved on, would have a huge effect on any lineup. This is why coming into the season it would have been unrealistic to expect the team to play like the powerhouse they were (I’m using the word powerhouse very loosely, because ultimately the Penguins 2017 Stanley Cup run was extremely lucky given how they played).
On top of all this player movement, Pittsburgh also lost assistant coach Rick Tocchet to Arizona, where he has taken over as head coach. For most teams changing coaches, even assistants, isn’t great, but this is a team that has won a cup 2 out of the last 3 times they’ve made a head coaching change, so while Tocchets departure isn’t a good thing, it’s not something that should be raised as a serious reason for the Penguins difficult season.
Finally, we have Jason Botterill leaving town to become general manager for the Buffalo Sabres. Many people would be quick to throw this to the side like Tocchet leaving, however I’m not completely ready to do that.
It was toward the end of the 2017 playoffs when it was announced that Botterill would be joining the Sabres organization. Since then, Penguins general manger Jim Rutherford has been less than stellar.
Starting with the trade that seen Ryan Reaves, a guy known for his fighting in a league where fighting is rapidly decreasing, move to Pittsburgh. The full deal was a 2017 31st overall pick (which turned into prospect Klim Kostin, who just finished up a solid World junior championships with team Russia) and young center Oskar Sundqvist for Ryan Reaves and a 2017 51st overall pick (defenseman Zachary Lauzon.)
No matter your opinion on Ryan Reaves, it’s difficult to defend that trade.
Rutherford followed this up by signing 32 year old depth defenseman Matt Hunwick to a 3 year contract with a cap hit of 2.25 million. Hunwick has arguably been the Penguins’ worst defenseman in his first year of his deal.
Rutherford then signed Greg McKegg to be a bottom 6 center on the team. McKegg didn’t do so well, and has since been sent to the minors.
While is seems ill advised to think an assistant GM could have such an impact on a team, given Rutherford’s performance since Boterill left, maybe it’s possible he had a huge say on transactions in Pittsburgh and now with him gone we are seeing the true Jim Rutherford.
That’s the easiest way to describe Matt Murray’s performance this season. It hasn’t been abysmal, but this was supposed to be the year Matt Murray proved himself as a top goaltender in the NHL, and all he’s done is created doubt about his abilities.
After having two great seasons where he lead the Penguins to a Stanley cup championships, technically as a rookie both times, this was supposed to be Murrays year to shine. Instead hes gotten worse, with his 93.43 5v5 sv% dropping to a 90.36%. To make it even worse, his xSVP% is surprisingly risen, from a 91.8% to 92.05%.
With Marc-Andre Fleury in Vegas now, Murray has the starting job, but he still has to be careful. The Penguins have yet another up-and-coming goalie. This time it’s 2nd round draft pick Tristian Jarry.
In the last two years Jarry has been killing the competition in the AHL, so the Penguins have rewarded him by giving him the backup role. In 15 games Jarry has a 5v5 svp% of 91.89%.
While Jarry has been pleasing thus far, it seems unlikely that he is ready to take over the starting job. To Murrays credit, he has been playing better lately, but overall he still needs to step up for the Penguins to be at their best.
The Penguins defense is having a terrible season. You know what’ll fix it? Trading Kris Letang, their best defenseman.
This rumor is hilarious to me. Assuming the Letang trade, which was first rumored by Nick Kypreos live on hockey night in Canada, actually happens the Penguins best defenseman would be either Bryan Dumoulin or Olli Maatta, and while I like these guys as second pairing defensemen, I’d much rather they stay on the second pairing (this being said one of them normally has to play on the top pairing because of the Penguins lack of defensive depth).
While I disagree with the rumor entirely, I understand the premise. Letang isn’t having a great season, which can be shown with his 5v5 GF% of just 31.67%, but I can’t image the Penguins going deep into the playoffs without at least one solid defenseman (and yes, I know they did it last year, but good luck getting out-shot and out-chanced every night and winning the cup again).
While all the above reasons for the Penguins losing definitely have not helped, I believe none have had a greater impact than the struggles of the “two headed monster”. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the foundation this Penguins team is built on, and are the biggest reasons for the years of the success Pittsburgh has had. So when both of them have a struggling start to their season, is it a surprise the team is struggling too?
Both Malkin and Crosby have had their points production slashed heavily this year, Malkin going from a 2.55 P1/60 last season to a 1.35 this year, and Crosby has struggled even more, going from a 2.31 to a 0.82.
While this is definitely alarming, this isn’t the first time. Just two seasons ago the media was asking if Crosby was washed up, saying his best years were behind him, a coaching change, and lots of wins later and he hoists the Stanley Cup over his head for the second time in his career.
Crosby is aging, but when you’re one of the best in the World, you don’t often fall off a cliff like this. With all the rumors surrounding Pittsburgh and trades, it’s very likely a wake-up call is coming soon, and Crosby has shown in the past that he responds to wake up calls.
If there has been one pleasant surprise on the team this year it has to be the play of Phil Kessel. Kessel is a guy who normally shows up when it matters most, specifically the playoffs, but this season it looks like playoff Kessel has come out to play early.
In the regular season last year Kessel had a 5v5 P1/60 of 1.01. Solid, but this year on a team struggling to score, Kessel is at 1.47. Hopefully Phil is able to stay this good all year, because if Pittsburgh can have this Phil Kessel on a team with Malkin and Crosby playing at their best, they’ll be in good shape.
If you have ever seen the Penguins defensive pairings on paper then it comes as no surprise to you that Pittsburgh is dead last in 5v5 GA/60, averaging to give up 2.92 goals against in 60 minutes of 5 on 5 play.
So that would mean defense is the issue? Well, not entirely, Pittsburgh is also second last in 5v5 GF/60, with 1.84.
Although being on the bad end of a few blowouts at the start of the season definitely skews those numbers, it still is alarming.
Im much more worried about the GA/60, because as stated above, Pittsburghs two biggest offensive threats are struggling, if they start rolling again, there is no doubt the GF/60 will go up.
But Pittsburgh doesn’t have that same luxury on defense. I know Letang is struggling, but he is not going to single handily turn the Penguins defense around, that’s where a new face could come in handy.
If I was Jim Rutherford I’d be looking into the defenders market for a shakeup move, which is scary because if all the reports are true, that’s the opposite of what he’s doing.
Should fans be worried?
if you are worried about this team here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9QmzB6bSD0&t=233s