Since Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin officially joined forces at the start of the 2006-07 season no team in the NHL has had more success than the Penguins. They have been a consistent Stanley Cup contender and have more regular season wins (659), playoff wins (98), Stanley Cup Final appearances (four), and Stanley Cup Final wins (three — tied with Chicago) than any other team. It has been an incredible run, and as long as those two are still on the roster and playing at a reasonably high level the expectation is going to remain the same — compete for a championship.
But ever since the Penguins’ most recent championship in 2017 there has been a steady regression in terms of their success on a year-to-year basis, especially as it relates to their postseason success. They have gone from champions, to a second-round exit, to a first-round sweep, to a loss in the Qualifying Round to the Canadiens last summer. Overall, they have won just three of their past 14 playoff games.
This season they are not even a lock to make the playoffs. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Rangers in a tightly contested five-team race for the four playoff spots in the East Division. They currently hold one of the spots (the fourth spot) based on total points, but are actually in fifth place when it comes to points percentage. They have struggled to find consistency, they have dealt with some injuries, and their general manager abruptly quit seven games into the season sparking a complete overhaul of the entire front office.
So what is this team right now? Are they still a contender at this moment? If not, what do they need to do to get back to that level?
The concerns right now
• Let’s start with the elephant in the room, and the fact their top-three players (Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang) are 33 and 34 years old. While they are still capable of playing at a high level, they are not going to do it as consistently and as dominantly as they did four or five years ago.
Malkin and Letang have especially struggled at times this season and have only recently started to somewhat return to form. But even they are not at the level we are accustomed to seeing from them. Even when these three were at their peak they could not carry the team on their own to a championship. They needed a strong supporting cast around them. That is even more true now.
• The special teams have been a mess this season on both ends. The power play and penalty kill are both among the least efficient units in the league and probably cost them a handful of games this season. You can win with a bad power play or a bad penalty kill. It is awfully difficult to win when both units are bad. Right now both units are bad.
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• There are too many weak links on the bottom half of the roster. One of the best qualities of the last two Cup teams was the fact there was really no weakness. No line gave you a break, no defense pairing could be exploited. That is not necessarily the case with this team. It is essentially at this point a three-line team as their fourth line offers no scoring touch or shutdown ability, while the defense has some major question marks.
Mike Matheson has not worked out since coming over in a trade from Florida, and John Marino has not quite repeated his rookie form. Overall, there are probably five or six players getting regular playing time that would not have cracked their most recent championship roster. That is a lot, and most of their trade resources (top prospects, draft picks) were exhausted by Jim Rutherford in trades. They do not have a lot to deal from to fill those spots.
What it will take for them to put together another run
• Getting Brian Dumoulin back in the lineup after an extended absence due to injury can not be overlooked. He can make a major impact on the struggling penalty killing unit, while he and Letang are still one of the best defense pairings in the league. Get them back together playing at their normal level for 15 minutes a night at 5-on-5 play and that is a game-changer.
• A lot of key players in the lineup can be better and should be better. That includes Malkin, Letang, Marino, and starting goalie Tristan Jarry. All of them have shown signs recently of getting back on track.
It is actually kind of remarkable that the Penguins have the record they do given all of the variables this season. Two of their three best players have struggled significantly by their standards, the goaltending has been inconsistent, and injuries have added up during what has been the most difficult part of their schedule. Despite all of that they still managed to stay close and given themselves a chance to make up some significant ground with a weaker second half schedule.
• Overall there are enough flaws and questions here to think the Penguins’ run at the top of the league is coming to a finish. The age of the top players and their decline, the depth questions, the special teams. All are enough to make you say they are not one of the best teams in their own division let alone one of the best teams in the league. But for as true as all that is, there really is not anybody in the division that is dramatically better than them. In any seven-game series they would not be a heavy favorite or underdog against any of the teams they would have to play in the first two rounds.
In the end that is a lot of ifs and question marks to get them back to that championship level. Anytime a team has to rely on that many things to go right at the same time it just increases the likelihood that something is not going to pan out.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.