After the first eight games of the 2018-19 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have only one loss in regulation. As nice as that sounds, it’s not truly indicative of how things have played out, and could be lulling fans into a false sense of security.
The young campaign has not been without its exciting moments: Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner against Connor McDavid’s Oilers, the dominance against the high-flying Maple Leafs, and the barn-burner performance in Calgary are among the highlights. But the concerning results of a porous defense and a struggling bottom six may inevitably force general manager Jim Rutherford’s hand into visiting the trade market.
Much Depends on Brassard
Derick Brassard hasn’t said publicly that he doesn’t like playing third fiddle behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the sentiment has become fairly apparent. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan outed Brassard in training camp when Sullivan admitted Brassard told coaches he struggled with the reduced role.
If Brassard were to embrace the role with the same gusto as Nick Bonino, the results could be fantastic. Instead, he has shown inconsistent play with flashes of brilliance followed by moments of confusion and disinterest.
In eight games, the 31-year old has produced the following Corsi: 74.07 – 37.50 – 42.31 – 43.90 – 52.63 – 28.57 – 55.17 – 24.24. These puck possession results are all over the place, and at times detrimental to the team. On top of that, one goal in eight games is not good enough for a player of Brassard’s pedigree. Even the three-assist performance in Calgary was diluted by dreadful possession numbers
The former Senator is better than Bonino and could produce more for the team than Jordan Staal ever did. But trying to force Brassard into a role and system that he may not be suited for will eventually hurt the cause. Crosby – Malkin – Brassard – Matt Cullen down the middle should be scary good, but only if ‘Brass’ finds his way.
Another option that coach Mike Sullivan has toyed with is Brassard on Crosby’s left wing. Among his three helpers, Thursday night was the second assist on Crosby’s beautiful backhand goal. This scenario shows promise, but if playing wing is the end game, another option at center for the third line may need to be found. Keeping Riley Sheahan, and signing Derek Grant was intended to create flexibility at the center position. This will suffice during the regular season, but the playoffs will be a different story.
Simon and Sprong Shenanigans
Dominik Simon (38.3) and Daniel Sprong (33.7) have produced dreadful possession numbers to date. Despite their natural talent, particularly Sprong, both have struggled in the early stages of the season.
Simon has shown some positive moments, including a goal and two assists, but needs to settle in with Brassard with a more simplistic game. Sprong, on the other hand, has looked completely out of place on an NHL roster. He is averaging under eight minutes a game, while Simon is playing just over nine, which indicates the confidence level that Sullivan has in the duo.
Prior to the start of the season, the Penguins depth was touted as a team strength. So far only Cullen and Riley Sheahan have been consistently dependable beyond the top lines, with the occasional addition of Patric Hornqvist. Replacing Sprong with Zach Aston-Reese would be an easy upgrade, and a possible deal with another team will become necessary if Simon doesn’t start producing.
On Thursday, Grant replaced Sprong in the lineup with much-improved results. The 28-year old ended up with a Corsi of 55.56 in over ten minutes of play as opposed to the paltry ice time that Sprong has been getting. It was an immediate improvement although one that may need an upgrade later in the season.
Despite the epic play of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, the Penguins’ defense has some serious concerns that need to be addressed. Justin Schultz is out for four months, Olli Maatta has been a liability, and Jack Johnson is stressing out the analytics community as expected.
The emergence of Juuso Riikola may have eased the problem a bit, but given the organizational depth on the blueline, or lack thereof, a move or two may be necessary. Pittsburgh needs a right-handed shot, which is priced at a premium around the league, so a deal may not be in the works for quite some time. But the Penguins’ defense went from a strength in training camp to a liability after eight games, so time may not be a luxury for Rutherford in this scenario.
It is early. Very early. But with each game, the Penguins’ deficiencies become more apparent. Rutherford has a history of identifying opportunities and pouncing on them early. Sheahan on October 21 (2017), Trevor Daley on December 14 (2015) and Jamie Oleksiak on December 19 (2017); all impactful deals that were done before the new year. It’s Stanley Cup or bust in Pittsburgh, so don’t expect ‘GMJR’ to be resting on his laurels.