Elmont, N.Y. — The Pittsburgh Penguins were built for that one more glorious Stanley Cup run.
This season, the Penguins are on pace for a stellar 107 points, which would put them seven points clear of last season’s playoff cut line. Yet, despite the recent juggernaut roll that propelled the Penguins to third place in the Metro Division, they are tied with the New York Rangers and three points ahead of the New York Islanders, who are out of the playoff seeding.
The Penguins have two games in hand on the Islanders, so they have a 3-7 point playoff cushion. Despite taking 15 of their last 18 points, that’s all the cushion they’ve accumulated.
Sportsnet recently termed the Metro the “Division of Doom” because six playoff-worthy teams are battling for four, maybe five, spots.
The Penguins are having a great season and will be just fine if Sidney Crosby continues his Hart Trophy season, Evgeni Malkin continues his point-per-game pace, and Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust stay healthy.
All of that happening seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
In addition to some good luck, the Penguins have a couple of needs for “the run.”
Pittsburgh Penguins Needs
Despite a nearly $9 million third line, the Penguins have become top-heavy. The third line has become a point of consternation as Jeff Carter has just one point (1-0-1) in his last eight games. Kasperi Kapanen has no goals and three assists in eight games since his hat trick against the Buffalo Sabres.
Beyond the baseline stats, the Penguins’ third line has been pinned in the defensive zone.
In 21 games, the trio, including Brock McGinn, has just a 41% Corsi, an expected-goals rate of 36%, and 37% scoring chances.
In the past eight games, they have a nearly unbelievable 32% Corsi, 27% expected-goals rate and only 30% of scoring chances.
One player off his game can have an adverse effect, but not wholly torpedo a line. That’s a team effort.
Simply put, the Penguins need a better third line. However, they have few or no internal options unless coaches elevate Teddy Blueger to the third-line center or begin to reconfigure the bottom-six with the available forwards.
Perhaps the existing trio will rebound, but short of that, coaches will be forced to shuffle the lines to find a solution. And GM Ron Hextall could put this on the top of his NHL trade deadline shopping list.
Their biggest hope for a solution is for the duo, or at least one of Kapanen and Carter, to rise to the challenge.
Before Twitter, owned by Jack or Elon, sports talk radio was where fans went to pile on struggling players. It seems Twitter amplifies the volume like a 1,000-watt Marshall amp pumps a six-string Les Paul.
Squarely at the bottom of the pile this season is Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin.
He’s had trouble with speedy teams and didn’t stop Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal’s wraparound goal that tied the game in the third period of the Penguins’ 4-3 OT loss on Thursday.
It hasn’t been a great first few months for Dumoulin, at least 5v5. (Dumoulin is an integral part of the Penguins’ third-ranked penalty kill.)
Without Jeff Petry, who is on LTIR, Dumoulin and fellow stay-home defenseman Jan Rutta have comprised the second pairing. Fast and aggressive teams, like Carolina and the Buffalo Sabres, has success going after Dumoulin and Rutta.
Despite high minutes, the pair has been on the ice for five Penguins goals, but 11 goals-against. The Penguins’ winning streaks haven’t meant better numbers, including an expected goals rate and scoring chance rate of 45%.
Dumoulin had an upswing through November with reduced minutes, but Kris Letang’s absence, followed quickly by Jeff Petry’s injury, has thrust Dumoulin into the spotlight.
It’s a tough spot for the Penguins. Dumoulin provides valuable services, but without one of the top two defensemen, it’s an unbalanced blueline corps.
The actual need is fuzzy. There seem to be internal options to create more balance, but Mark Friedman, who played in six of the seven playoff games last May, hasn’t played an NHL game this season.
He doesn’t seem to be in the Penguins’ plans. At least, not yet.
Young defenseman Ty Smith, acquired from the New Jersey Devils in the John Marino trade, has been working on his defensive game at the AHL level, too.
However, an offensive defenseman in Dumoulin’s stead would create a problem for the PK.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a chance. They also have needs, but few internal options and limited ability to obtain external options.
Of course, with about 20-22 teams at or within $1 million of the salary cap, many teams have needs, and few will be able to meet them.