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Penguins Problems Deeper Than Cup Hangover



Pittsburgh Penguins free agent signings Matt Cullen
By Michael Miller - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Penguins were again embarrassed, Sunday night. It was the fourth time they’ve played back to back games, and the fourth time in the second of back-to-back games in which they were spanked like a sugar addled toddler in the middle of Walmart.

The Penguins problems extend beyond simply back-to-back games…of which they have 15 more.

Some say–They’re two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, leave them alone! Others say–the Pens are tired, it’s only October!

In fact, previous efforts to gently wade into negative analysis was met with overwhelming responses, “Phil Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup winner!”

Well, grab your orange swimmies and nose plugs, kids. We’re going in deep…finally.

Those who dismiss the Penguins woes, not only in back-to-back games, this season are missing the realities of the new season. As a cold reminder, gone are character players who were also big contributors, Matt Cullen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Trevor Daley, Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz.

Matt Cullen, “Dad”, was the person in the locker room who could hold all accountable, including the Penguins star players. Fleury was the glue guy who could bring good energy to the room when times were tough and steal a game when given the chance. Daley provided a speedy spark from the blue line, with and without Kris Letang. And Kunitz was a leader and intense grinder who could win puck battles and drive offensive chances, even as his offensive skills deteriorated.

Nick Bonino was nearly a 40 point third line center who enjoyed blocking shots.

Penguins Problem #1: GMJR Mistakes

Lay the first log of early season blame on General Manager Jim Rutherford. None of the above were replaced with an equal or better player. Antti Niemi, Matt Hunwick, Greg McKegg, Riley Sheahan and whomever becomes the backup to Matt Murray aren’t as good as what the Penguins had.

Superficially, you may blame the salary cap constraints. The salary cap, Kingerski! However, deeper examination reveals big mistakes.

In fact, with the exception of Hunwick, it’s not a given the rest are NHL players. Niemi was an awful signing necessitated by lack of salary cap space and fueled by inexplicable belief that simply playing with the Penguins would be a cure for what ailed the goalie.

Rutherford handed full-market-value paychecks to restricted free agents Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz. Consequently, he was forced to go cheap on other needs.

In reality, Schultz’s deal ($5.5 million) is about 10% above market value.

Dumoulin’s deal is almost exactly what predicted, but with Hunwick’s signing, the Penguins didn’t need another defenseman like Dumoulin. Or Maatta. The Penguins went from three offensive defensemen to two, which means one pairing doesn’t have an offensive punch and may find themselves on the ice with a third or fourth line, which also lacks any offensive pop.

For Corsi folks, that’s a nightmare with your eyes open.

The Penguins defense is the third highest paid blue line in the NHL. However, their statistics place them in the bottom third of the league. The Penguins are dead last in Corsi Against (shots + shot attempts).

But that isn’t entirely on the defense…

Problem 1A: Bottom 6 Going Belly Up:

The beer-chaser to overpaying defensemen is a lack of resources for other needs such as third line center and backup goalie.

It remains surprising that the Penguins–who have won three Stanley Cups since 2009, all when they were FOUR deep in the middle–neglected the middle this offseason. As further result, the bottom six has suffered greatly.

Center Greg McKegg has two points, 5v5, in 13 games. Three of the four bottom six wingers, Carl Hagelin, Ryan Reaves, and Tom Kuhnhackl, also have only two points, 5v5.

Matt Cullen, as a fourth line center, scored over 30 points in each season with the Penguins. McKegg is on pace for 10 points, 5v5.

A fourth line must occasionally produce a shift which tilts the ice and keeps the puck in the offensive zone. The third line must do the same and produce a few more points. Neither is happening, yet.

Riley Sheahan, the third line center the Penguins patiently waited to acquire above all others, had one shot and one high danger scoring chance in his first three games as a Penguin, according to Natural Stat Trick.

After four games, he has just one point–a secondary assist. He was quietly credited with four scoring chances and four shots against Winnipeg, Sunday night. The Penguins will need a lot more of those games, and more conversions.

Combined, Detroit and Pittsburgh, Sheahan has one point in 12 games.

Uh oh. “It’s only October” doesn’t apply to not good enough. The Penguins will need considerably better play from their bottom pivots.

Unfortunately, it remains a mystery if consistently better play is possible.

Problem #2: Stumbling Stars

Evgeni Malkin leads the team in scoring, but has not played well.

Kris Letang is still working back from neck surgery and has not played well.

Fortunately, these are temporary problems and will not continue. However, it does highlight the deficiency in the bottom six. If and when the Penguins top two players are held in check, or are struggling, the Penguins will need someone to pick up the slack.

Problem #3: Goaltending

The Penguins have not shown good effort in any of the second of back-to-back games. In those four games, the Penguins have given up at least seven goals, three times.

What would a couple saves have meant? A night after having his bell rung, Matt Murray was pressed into service. He wasn’t great, but it was still the best goaltending performance the Penguins received in the second of back-to-back sets.

It’s foolish to lay any blame on Murray, though he had a couple opportunities to make a big save. The Winnipeg Jets fourth goal specifically was a bad goal. Murray had a chance to make a save on the first two goals.

The Penguins lack of a backup goalie necessitated Murray starting both ends of the set, despite being wobbled by a knee to the head, Saturday. He may also be forced into starting both of the next back-to-back set, Wednesday and Thursday.

Casey DeSmith was called up to backup Matt Murray, not play in the NHL.


What was done and not done this offseason can be done and re-done now. The Penguins need to bolster their depth and that will take salary cap resources. Part of the deck needs to be reshuffled.

NHL General Managers like to wait until the quarter post of the season to begin making moves. That line will be crossed next week.

Options exist. There are several teams looking for defense and several teams shopping it. Finding a backup goalie will be difficult, but it’s a necessity, even if it means trusting Tristan Jarry.

And the Penguins may need to keep one eye on their centers and the other eye open for better options.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Jill B.
Jill B.
5 years ago

Dan, You nailed it! Lot of work to be done (REdone) by GMJR.

5 years ago

The Penguins need to trade 1 of their big time stars but most have no trade clauses. You can see Penguins ending up like the early 80’s Steelers. 2020 Crosby, Letang, Malkin, Kessel etc will be around 33 and then Pens trapped. Won’t get the trade value would have a few years ago….While still paying them like the superstars they were 5 years before. Pens received a break with the expansion Vegas taking Fleury. There aren’t many options for PGH. The smart business move would to tank the season if the losses mount. Grab the next Crosby, Jagr or McDavid… Read more »

Del Scott
Del Scott
5 years ago

I’ve said since the summer, I believe Tyler Bozak would be a great fit for 3C. He can score, play the pK, win face-offs, and Kessel has done some of his best work on Bozak’s wing.