Penguins look like a bad hockey team right now

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PITTSBURGH — Now that they are officially into the second half of the season we have seen enough from the Pittsburgh Penguins to confidently say, at this point, they might actually be a bad hockey team.

A bad hockey team that only seems to be getting worse. At least as they are currently constructed.

On Thursday night they were completely and thoroughly dominated by a Carolina Hurricanes team they are currently chasing in the standings. The game not only had no business being as close as the 4-0 score might indicate (and it really doesn’t even indicate that of close game a game), it was also their second loss to the Hurricanes in less than a week.

They scored a total of one goal in those two games, surrendered six, and were outshot by a 66-49 margin.

Against a team that they are, again, in direct competition with for a playoff spot.

Given the context of where they are in the standings and what the game meant, Thursday’s performance was, simply put, ugly.

Really, really, really ugly.

It was also not a fluke. They have had too games this season where they have completely laid an egg on the ice for it to be considered one.

It was such a lackluster effort that Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward, after stopping all 21 shots he faced to record his first shutout of the season, called it a “relatively comfortable night” for himself.

Most goalies do not talk about having comfortable nights against the Penguins.

Here is where this puts the Penguins as they head into Friday’s game against the New York Islanders (another team they are chasing in the standings and another big game they can not afford to lose).

  • The Penguins find themselves three points behind Carolina for the second Wild Card spot while the Hurricanes still have two games in hand.
  • The Penguins have not won back-to-back games since Dec. 1 and 2. Since the start of December they have played 16 games. They have won only seven of them, with only three coming in regulation.
  • The Penguins have the worst points percentage of any team in the Metropolitan Division, and as I noted on Tuesday heading into their game against the Philadelphia Flyers, they are going to need to play at an extraordinarily high level the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot. After Thursday’s loss they will need 52 points in their final 40 games to reach 95 points, usually the low point for what it takes to get a playoff spot. That is a .650 points percentage. Their current points percentage on the season: .511.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing, I think it’s a combination of things,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after Thursday’s game when asked about his team’s current struggle to piece together consecutive wins.

“It could be something different every night. It starts with a compete level, a mindset, and a willingness to win puck battles, things of that nature.”

Captain Sidney Crosby echoed a similar sentiment.

“We just haven’t put games together We’ve had one good game, then it’s exactly the way our record shows. If we knew the reason I think we would find a way to put them together. I think the main thing is our compete level and finding that nightly we haven’t been able to do it.”

Earlier this season there was a lot of talk about how tough the early schedule was given the number of back-to-backs they had and the number of games they had to play the past two seasons. Including playoffs the Penguins played 213 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, more than any team in the history of the league has played over a two-year stretch. It is a lot, and there is a reason so few teams are able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and why winning more than two in a row is almost impossible: It takes a lot, and it can be a mental and physical grind.

But the Penguins are not the first team that has played a lot of hockey over a two-year stretch by going on Stanley Cup Final runs. Since the start of the 1990 season the Penguins are the seventh team to have played in consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.

The 1991 and 1992 Penguins played 209 games over their two-year stretch. The 1997 and 1998 Red Wings played 206. The Dallas Stars played 210 over the 1999 and 2000 seasons. The New Jersey Devils played 212 between 2000 and 2001. The Penguins and Red Wings played 208 and 209 respectively during their back-to-back runs in 2008 and 2009.

Every single one of those teams not only came back the third year to make the playoffs, all but one (the Devils) won at least one round in the playoffs. They averaged more than 45 wins in the third season.

As mentioned above, the Penguins are going to need to pretty much match their 2016-17 regular season performance the rest of the way just to get in.

The problem isn’t necessarily the schedule or fatigue. It isn’t necessarily a mindset or a compete level. Those factors might be a part of it, but it’s not all of it.

A big part of it is still simply a lack of talent in a lot of key areas, and it all stems from an offseason of inactivity that saw the depth that made them so lethal the past two seasons get ripped apart while they did nothing to counter it. As currently constructed the Penguins are right back to where they were toward the end of the Ray Shero-Dan Bylsma era — a top-heavy team of superstars that doesn’t have enough complementary pieces to really be a true force.

If you wanted to argue that Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not playing as well as they did the past two years, you would not be wrong. It’s not an unfair observation, at least when it comes to their point production. Both players are down and when so much of your team is built around two players that is going to hurt. But they are still performing at a top-line level. Their numbers might be sub-par for them, but they are still more than most teams will get out of their top players.

The Penguins didn’t win the past two Stanley Cups because Crosby or Malkin did anything more than they used to do — they won because the team had four lines that could all score on any given night. On the nights where their top players were shut down (and that will happen quite a bit over an 82-game season plus playoffs) they still had other players that could score. Depth matters.

A year ago when the Penguins did not get a goal from Crosby or Malkin in a game (whether because one or both was out of the lineup, or because they simply did not score) the Penguins still had a .466 points percentage and averaged 2.5 goals per game. Certainly not dominant, but still somewhat passable considering how important those two players are.

So far this season when neither Crosby or Malkin score the Penguins have a .333 points percentage and are averaging only 1.9 goals per game.

Say it with me again: Depth matters.

Given what the Penguins lost and what they did to replace it this should not be a surprise, but it’s back to the 2011-2015 days of hoping that one or both of them can carry the offense all on their own.

Over the summer the Penguins lost Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz off of that forward group. That trio of players scored 40 goals for them a year ago.

The three players that are currently replacing them on the roster (Riley Sheahan, Carter Rowney and Ryan Reaves) are on pace to score 12.

That is going to make a significant dent. I’ve written about the Penguins’ lack of depth before this season and it’s not about whether or not the Penguins should have tried to keep the players they lost, because financially they simply could not do it. There was no way they could fit Bonino under the salary cap, while Cullen had family ties to Minnesota.

Sometimes things just don’t work out.

But they had to do something more than what they did.

They had to have a better backup plan than just assuming Carter Rowney or Greg McKegg could adequately come close to replacing what Bonino and Cullen did for them.

They had to do something more than trade for Ryan Reaves, a complete 180 turn from the type of player that used to make up their fourth-line, and essentially turn themselves into a three-line team because they don’t even trust the fourth line to play any sort of meaningful minutes. They didn’t have to use what available cap space they had on Matt Hunwick, Reaves and Sheahan.

For as many times as general manager Jim Rutherford pushed the right buttons in 2015 and 2016, he pushed all of the wrong ones this summer.

Now, having said all of that, the question the Penguins have to answer is whether or not they try to salvage this season and make a couple of more trades, or if they just ride it out, see where the current roster takes them, and regroup with a better offseason?

For as bleak as things look right now this season as long as they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang on the roster they owe it to themselves to try and win. You only get players like that for so long, and you almost never get a chance to make history by winning multiple Stanley Cups in a short period of time. You never want to punt on any season with that core, especially when we saw how a few changes mid-season sparked them just two years ago.

Sometimes that spark comes with a price when it comes to giving up young talent or a part of your future, and that can be risky. On the other hand, banners hang forever.

If there is any glimmer of hope the Penguins can cling to at this point in the season it’s that Crosby, Malkin and Letang can — and probably still should — be a little better than they have been. That will help. We also haven’t even gotten into the struggles of Matt Murray this season because he too can (and needs to) be better.

But even if all of that happens they are still going to need to address the obvious deficiencies they have with their scoring depth and perhaps even a little on the blue line. Unless they do that it’s hard to envision them making any sort of noise in the playoffs again.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.