Nearly one quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season and the Pittsburgh Penguins are probably not exactly where they want to be at this point.
Entering play on Tuesday, when they will host the Buffalo Sabres, they are 17th in the NHL in points percentage, they have the third-worst goal differential (minus-18, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes) after losing games by margins of 10-7, 7-1 and 7-1, and are only a middle of the pack team in terms of their shot attempt and possession numbers. Their goals against numbers overall are ugly (largely due to the three blowout losses), but they are also only 25th in the league in goals per game.
None of that is great.
There are a lot of factors here.
The early season schedule to this point has been brutal, having already played six sets of back-to-back games (often against rested teams — including some of the best teams in the league). For a team that has played 214 games the past two seasons that is a tough way to open the season. Their backup goaltending situation early in the season was a disaster with Antti Niemi giving up goals in bunches.
It is not wrong to think that a better backup goaltending situation to start the year could have maybe produced an extra win, or that once the schedule calms down a little they will start to get back on track a little.
There is another issue at work here too that is going to need to be addressed in a meaningful way: The bottom of the roster, which was decimated by free agency and the salary cap over the summer, is giving them almost no offense to speak of. Or anything, really.
This brings back a problem that plagued the Penguins between the 2010 and 2015 seasons when they were getting bounced early in the playoffs despite having a group of All-Stars at the top of the roster.
Over the past two years general manager Jim Rutherford did a ton of work to build that depth back up and it resulted in back-to-back Stanley Cups.
This past summer a lot of that depth walked out the door in free agency with Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators), Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning), and Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) all moving on. That also does not include the exit of Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, a pretty significant departure given how bad Niemi turned out to be.
That is a lot of depth to replace in one offseason, and to this point the Penguins have struggled to do it.
Instead of Bonino and Cullen at the third and fourth center spots they opened the season with Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney (currently injured), then traded for Riley Sheahan, a player that has not scored a goal in 97 of his past 98 games.
Ryan Reaves, brought in to add toughness, is playing just seven minutes per night and has replaced Kunitz.
Looking at it from a numbers perspective it is not hard to see how much of a drop this is has been for the offense.
Let’s break their forwards and their production down into two groups of six: The top-six in terms of ice-time and the bottom-six in terms of ice-time.
During the 2016-17 season the Penguins forwards that were 7-12 in ice-time averaged .445 points per game as a group.
So far this year? The 7-12 group is at just .201. A player that averages .201 points per game over 82 games scores just 16 points in a season. A .445 player scores 36.
That is a pretty substantial drop. To be fair we are also comparing a 19-game sampling with a full season. A lot can happen over the next few months. The table below breaks down the past two full seasons, as well as this one, to show where the Penguins were after 19 games and where they ended up.
In each of the past two seasons both groups were slow starters relative to where they ended up at the end of the season. But it wasn’t just a matter of players getting better or seeing their production in crease. In both instances there were pretty significant changes made to the roster.
In 2015-16 pretty much everything about the team changed after the first quarter of the season, from the head coach (Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan) to almost half of the roster (Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Justin Schultz all being called up or added to the roster during the season).
In 2016-17 it was the call-up of Jake Guentzel that ended up making a huge difference (as well as the return of a lot of injured player).
The point here is if the Penguins are going to have any chance of another repeat run they are going to need to make similar changes at some point before the trade deadline.
In their two years as the Penguins’ third-and fourth-line centers Bonino and Cullen each averaged 15 goals and between 30-40 points.
Right now McKegg and Sheahan are on a four-goal and 11-point pace … combined.
The Penguins didn’t go from postseason disappointments to Stanley Cup champions the past two years because players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin got better or became better leaders or became more clutch. They were the same as they have always been (great). They became Stanley Cup champions again because players like Crosby and Malkin were still great, and they had a great supporting cast of players around them.
This is not to suggest the Penguins would necessarily be in a better situation with Bonino and Cullen and Kunitz at this point. Cullen is 41 years old and has one goal so far in Minnesota. At some point he will slow down. Bonino has played in just five games for the Predators due to injury and the Penguins never could have matched that contract offer under the salary cap. (Keeping Kunitz instead of adding Reaves probably would have been smart).
Their production from the past two seasons still existed and was a big part of the Penguins success. That is production they are not getting and are unlikely to get from the current cast of players in those roles as replacements.
There are some areas where improvement can come from. Sidney Crosby is going to play better. Kris Letang can (and probably will) play better. Prospect Daniel Sprong is off to a great start in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and could be on the Guentzel path to the NHL at some point later in the season.
The third-and fourth-line center spots, however, have become offensive black holes and with Reaves only playing seven minutes a night (sometimes significantly less) they are pretty much playing with an 11-man forward group.
All of those areas need to be addressed if another postseason run is going to happen this season.