Two games into the season is hardly the time to panic, especially when the team in question is the Pittsburgh Penguins — a team that has won back-to-back Stanley Cups while overcoming quite a bit of adversity each time (a mid-season coaching change one year; a significant injury to one of their best players in the other).
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bit of an eye-opener when they open the season with back-to-back losses, giving up 15 goals in the process while getting completely annihilated on Thursday night in Chicago by a 10-1 margin.
Mike Sullivan called it a “wake-up call” on Friday in advance of their Stanley Cup Final rematch against Nashville on Saturday night and insisted that nobody is hitting the panic button.
Quite honestly, they shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for at least some mild concern with the way the team has looked through the first two games.
One of the more astonishing things about their Stanley Cup run a season ago is that they did it with what was a mostly patchwork defense that was without its best player in Kris Letang.
Overall, they were not a great defensive team during the 2016-17 season. They finished 17th in the league in goals against during the regular season, gave up more shots than your typical Stanley Cup winner does, and more often than not found themselves getting outshot and outchanced in the playoffs. What got them through it was two outstanding goaltending performances from Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as the fact they had the best, and deepest group of forwards in the NHL that could pounce on any chance the opposition gave them and bury it in the back of the net.
The results were there in the short-term, but it was never a long-term recipe for success. The goaltending was always the key because without that level of play in the early rounds from Fleury they probably don’t get out of the first or second round. Once that goaltending performance dropped off a little, the flaws on defense were going to be exposed.
A lot of those flaws on defense still showed up through the first two games (even with the return of Letang) and the goaltending has not been able to bail them out so far.
Murray hasn’t quite gotten to his game yet, while new backup Antti Niemi fell on his face (literally and figuratively) in his debut with the team.
The question is whether or not they can remedy those flaws with the current roster.
The offseason saw the team lose forwards Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz, while Patric Hornqvist has yet to play due to an injury. Losing Bonino and Cullen was a pretty big blow to their center depth (that they still have not really replaced) and with Hornqvist out of the lineup they are basically skating a couple of fourth lines when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not on the ice and the defense still has its share of question marks, with the only change coming in the form of swapping out Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey for Matt Hunwick.
They are still likely to swing a trade at some point to improve that center depth, and it seems logical to think that prized prospect Daniel Sprong might get the Jake Guentzel treatment this season and be a mid-season call-up after getting his feet wet in the American Hockey League.
That, along with the return of Hornqvist will certainly help fix those problems up front.
The problems on the back-end, however, might be a little more difficult to fix. Letang, when healthy, is a superstar and Justin Schultz has become the player everyone thought he could be in Edmonton. But beyond that it is still a group that has some question marks. It’s been said about that group a lot over the past two years, and they’ve always found a way to overcome it and succeed, but the roster around them does not seem to be quite as strong on paper at the moment.