The Pittsburgh Penguins offense is missing key ingredients, and not producing goals.
The Penguins concluded their Minnesota to western Canada road trip with one win, three losses, and one overtime loss. On the positive ledger, goalie prospect Tristan Jarry posted an outstanding performance in the second of back-to-back games, last Thursday in Calgary. However, the previously potent Penguins offense continued to look like a cap gun version of itself.
In the last eight games, the Penguins have scored more than ONE goal in regulation just twice and posted a single goal (over 60 minutes) SIX times.
The mighty Penguins are suddenly a flightless bird. But how and why?
Key Ingredient #1: Net Play
Preparing our last episode of Pittsburgh Hockey Now on the CW Network, I stumbled across a Tampa Bay Lightning sequence which highlighted one Penguins shortcoming: Net front presence.
The Penguins chose to remake part of their roster last summer. They parted ways with older legs, hoping to get fresher. Chris Kunitz’s game faded with the Penguins, but the team failed to replace his on-ice role. As you watch this highlight, ask yourself when was the last time a Penguins forward was as hard on the puck, as dogged in pursuit, then crashed the net:
The Penguins have a talented top 6 crew, but not a gritty or hungry crew. Winger Patric Hornqvist is the lone net banger left with the Penguins. Other Pens wingers who have seen significant top two lines time include Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel. All are talented players, but not net front battlers or corner grinders.
The Penguins are missing players to lay claim to the dirty scoring area. As the games tighten up (the first few weeks of October are wide open hockey), the dirty areas are prime. And, the net-front presence is necessary to capitalize on second chances.
The Penguins aren’t getting those second chances because they don’t have enough net-front presence. Nor are the Penguins gaining the final byproduct of net-front play: Creating a goalie screen.
Ingredient #2: Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin, despite The Hockey News ridiculous snub last year, is one of the all-time great NHL players. This is where eye test and numbers peeps will part. Malkin has put up strong offensive statistics. 15 points (6g, 9a) in 16 games and he is the Penguins second-leading scorer.
The eye test says Malkin has played only sparingly good hockey. Malkin has put up points in fits and starts, power plays and momentary bursts.
Malkin’s left wing has been an unsettled spot. Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl have taken their turn on the left side of Malkin, while Phil Kessel has taken the bulk of time on the right.
Russian free agent Danis Zaripov could be a solution in this position, but the Penguins seem to have tabled that idea. Such a crazy move could also serve $4 million Carl Hagelin a plate of pressbox nachos.
Ingredient #3: Letang / Schultz / Defense
Kris Letang is a great defenseman. According to General Manager Jim Rutherford and the Penguins, Letang is “the straw that stirs the drink”. So, it’s no surprise, as Letang searches for his game, the Penguins offense is also searching for production.
Letang has suffered more hardship than most players. Multiple serious concussions, blood clots, and neck surgery. Those are not insignificant injuries and they are certainly not small mental hurdles to overcome. Letang will find his game or a new game. He is too talented to keep offering pizza off the glass or in the slot. He is far too talented to get walked as often as he has this season.
Justin Schultz provided the offensive spark for the Penguins blue line last season, in Letang’s absence. Without Schultz in the lineup, the job falls solely on Letang, who is not yet up to the task. Fortunately for the Penguins, both situations will be remedied.
However, that ONLY Letang and Schultz are capable of providing pop from the back end, should be a concern. The Penguins have a lot of money tied up in the blue line (3rd most expensive in the NHL). Simply, they need more production and better puck possession from the blue line, with or without Schultz or an in-sync Letang.
Ingredient #4: Scoring Chances for Bottom 6
The Penguins bottom six possessed the puck, statistically, but have not created adequate scoring chances. in fact, the number of scoring chances created by the Penguins bottom six is…nearly nonexistent. Third line center Riley Sheahan is averaging about one scoring chance per game. He has just one assist this season.
The rest of the Penguins usual cast of characters in the bottom six are also stone cold quiet on the score sheet. Carl Hagelin (2), Ryan Reaves (4), Greg McKegg (4), and Tom Kuhnhackl (3) have combined for only 13 points. Sheahan brings that total to 14.
We specifically discussed this topic on the TV show, Saturday. We won’t post every episode online because we need you to watch and DVR it, but we posted this one on our Facebook page. If you haven’t already, please like our Facebook page: CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE SHOW
Ingredient #5: Jim Rutherford
Rutherford is not a boss who refuses to make changes. The Penguins soup is currently missing a few ingredients. The Penguins suffered great internal and external losses in the offseason. They haven’t yet plugged those holes to “Stanley Cup” levels.
It is possible Sheahan grows into his role and becomes the player he was a few years ago. It is possible, but it’s not off to a good start.
The Penguins defense is suddenly expensive but not productive, either in shot suppression or shot generation. That is a huge issue.
Malkin, Letang and Sidney Crosby will be fine. They will perform and provide the level of play needed. It’s the supporting cast of characters who have become question marks. “It’s early season” doesn’t apply to personnel issues. Rutherford likely sees the same. Now that the Matt Duchene saga is finally over, General Managers may begin to talk more seriously.
For the Penguins, another Stanley Cup will not come without some trade drama.