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A Few Uncomfortable Penguins Truths, Good and Bad



Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Graves

TORONTO — When Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Sheldon Keefe put his top line with Auston Matthews, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Max Domi on the ice against the Penguins’ fourth line and third defensive pairing, he was probably salivating at the possibility of burying his opponent.

And therein lies one of the hidden strengths but obvious weaknesses of the Penguins lineup.

The Penguins’ fourth line without Noel Acciari has not been terrible. Emil Bemstrom has a knack for flying the zone at the right moment to create a breakaway opportunity.

They’ve been good defensively, but, well, that’s about it. There’s not much to like or praise about the line other than the fact that they don’t get scored on.

On Monday night, the Penguins’ fourth line had a 9% Corsi rate. Toronto had 10 shot attempts, four high-danger chances compared to one shot attempt, and nothing resembling a scoring chance.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Penguins’ bottom six is where the young players are playing, and they’re not making much of an impact. Lars Eller had an outstanding game, but the Eller line with Reilly Smith and Valtteri Puustinen had a whopping 19% Corsi with two scoring chances.

The Penguins were a two-line team, and no, Sam Poulin wouldn’t have made a difference.

Furthering the uncomfortable truth is that the bottom six have not made nearly enough of a scoring impact this season. The list of bottom-six players who have scored an adequate amount for their roles could be empty.

Eller has 15 goals, and … wait for it … Jeff Carter has nine. The bottom six’s lack of offense is sometimes painful and only adds to Sidney Crosby’s task.

If the bottom six could get the puck into the offensive zone more often, you’d see even greater Crosby numbers playing on only 50 feet of ice instead of 200.

However, as Keefe went after the underbelly of the Penguins lineup, he found defensemen who could hang with his top crew. Jack St. Ivany and Ryan Shea held the fort against the very talented Maple Leafs forwards.

Their advanced analytics were not great (about a 34% Corsi rate), but Toronto’s scoring chances were only 7-4 against the Penguins’ third pair.

St. Ivany has a couple of shortcomings in his game, which are probably correctable. He can be a little slow with the puck, but he does not lack toughness around the net. When he’s on the ice, it’s clear that’s his domain. Opponents do not get a free ride near the net and usually must fight to get near it.

Ryan Shea has not been a shrinking violet near the net, either. He’s done his job physically engaging there. Coach Mike Sullivan had some praise for him after the Washington game.

“I think the second time around, he has a whole different confidence level. I don’t think he’s playing a cautious game. He’s making the plays when they’re there. He’s making simple plays when they’re not there,” Sullivan said. “He’s defending hard. I think he and Jack have played really well together as a pair … They have pretty good chemistry … I don’t think there’s any question (that) Ryan’s brought his game to another level this time.”

The biggest uncomfortable truth might be for the president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas. Without Ryan Graves, who is concussed in the lineup, the Penguins’ defense has been significantly better.

Perhaps switches flip and lights turn on next season for Graves. His contract runs for five more years. Perhaps it all comes together, but after six months, there was scant evidence that he found his place in the Penguins’ system or adapted to it.

Many fans immediately lept to that conclusion. You were correct. There’s been no regression in St. Ivany or Shea. According to, Monday night was the first time they were on the ice for a goal in over 53 minutes of ice time.

They could move the puck better and be quicker in the play, but keeping the puck out of their net is also important.

It’s not easy to criticize a player who is injured, but the difference without Graves has been noticeable. The lack of mistakes, the increased D-zone coverage, and the substantially improved net-front battle are impossible to miss.

The more I watch the Penguins’ third pair, the more I think Graves won’t play again this season, and the more imperative it becomes for Dubas to see if there’s a feasible solution this summer.

Against a very good team, the Penguins’ strengths and weaknesses were there to see. Should they get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, those don’t figure to change against the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, or Carolina Hurricanes.

The good teams will target the Penguins’ weaknesses in the playoffs, and simply not giving up a goal will not be good enough to win a series. That’s not on Sullivan, Crosby, or Evgeni Malkin. One of those unexpected heroes needs to rise.

Now would be a good time for Puustinen, Smith, or Puljujarvi to add a goal.

And the sooner, the better because the Penguins’ playoffs started last night. Lose, and they might be out. With only four games remaining, it might be that simple.