Why are the Penguins fighting for a playoff spot?

The Pittsburgh Penguins came out of their bye week Saturday in a position that no one would expect the winner of the last two Stanley Cups to be — on the outside looking in for a playoff spot. A 4-1 win over Detroit on Saturday swiftly pulled them back into a wildcard spot in the extremely tight battle for position.

In fact, the Penguins were at one point in last place in the Metropolitan Division before winning three of four before the five day layoff to temporarily climb back into a wildcard spot, which they regained. Although they have gotten on a bit of a roll of late, it begs to question, why are the defending, back-to-back champs fighting for their playoff lives?

Sure, they are still right in the thick of the playoff race with almost half of the regular season to go, but would anyone have predicted they would be fighting for a wild card spot and not making a run at the division title at this point in the season? It is safe to say they are not meeting expectations and the season to this point has been underwhelming.

ARE THE STARS

PRODUCING?

Anyone who hears the Penguins so much as mentioned, even those that do not follow hockey, think of one person when the Pittsburgh Penguins are mentioned; Sidney Crosby. Widely considered one of the, if not the best hockey player in the world, last season the face of the franchise scored 44 goals and compiled 45 assists for 89 points, good enough for second in the NHL, while playing in 75 of 82 games.

This season, the 30-year old star has 16 goals and 29 assists (45 points) in 45 games, including a goal and an assist on Saturday, putting him on pace for 82 points if he plays in all 82 games, which Crosby has never done in his career. While seven points difference may not seem like a lot, his current total ranks him outside of the top-10 in the league.

In fact, he’s not even the Penguins scoring leader, or second for that matter as he sits third on the team. That title belongs to the one star on the team that is producing at a higher than normal level; Phil Kessel.

Another thing to note about Crosby is he is a minus-11. While plus-minus is not always that telling of stat, it is worth noting he has not had a minus rating since his rookie season when he was a minus-1.

Kessel, who is supposed to be the team’s third best player, has 19 goals and 31 assists for 50 points to rank close to the top-10 in the league. He’s on pace for highs in goals and assists since joining the Penguins, and a career high total in points. He’s either going to have a career year, or is bound to slow down at some point in the second half.

The other star of the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin had a big day Saturday and is starting to heat up with 46 points (19 goals, 27 assists) in 41 games. If he finishes the season without missing any more time, he is scoring 1.12 points per game so far this season, climbing back toward the 1.16 last season when he put up 72 points in 62 games.

Another player considered to be one of the stars of the Penguins, defenseman Kris Letang, has been in more conversations about potential trades (even though the team has said he is not being traded) than his usual involvement in the Norris Trophy conversation.

Letang has just three goals in 42 games, with 24 assists for 27 points. He is a minus-13. Last season the blueliner had his season cut short due to injury right at 41 games, and he had more goals (5), assists (29) and points (34) and was a plus-two.

In the 11 season Letang has played more than 30 NHL games, he has only finished with a minus rating three times. In his NHL career prior to this season, he is a plus-60. The last time he played close to a full season, 71 games in 2015-16, he had 16 goals.

While he is coming off of a serious injury and has had a plethora of health related problems in years past, the Penguins need him to be better than he has been.

While the stars have not been bad necessarily, they have not been consistently up to the standard, outside of Kessel, that has come to be expected of the team that is supposed to be competing for a third consecutive championship. Crosby has already been showing signs of getting back to dominant form, scoring a goal and six assists in the two games before the break and picking up where he left off on Saturday, and Malkin is heating up as well. If the Penguins are going to make a run for a sixth title, they will need all of them to continue to play at a high level.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Everyone that knows the Penguins and has not been living under a rock knows that longtime goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was snatched up by the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft this past summer.

He had for the most part taken a back seat to Matt Murray, who won 32 games last season as the primary starter, then returned from an injury after Fleury had successfully stepped in during the opening rounds of the playoffs to help lead the Penguins to win his second Stanley Cup in as many seasons.

During the 2016-17 regular season, Murray went 32-10-4 with a 2.41 goals against average and a .923 saves percentage, while posting four shutouts. So far in 2017-18, Murray has a record of 15-12-1 with a goals against of 2.93 and a .903 saves percentage, with one shutout. That is a pretty considerable difference.

Contrary to what some Penguins fans think, the team had no choice but to protect Murray over Fleury in the expansion draft. Murray is 10 years younger and had just won his second championship in as many seasons. Fleury, notorious for poor playoff performances in between the 2009 Championship and Murray’s arrival, is in the backhalf of a good career, compared to Murray having the majority of his career in front of him still.

However, because of the circumstances, the two will always be tied together in debate among the fan base. Compounding that is the success Fleury and his Golden Knights are having to this point in the season.

He has been limited to 12 games due to a concussion, but is 9-2-1 in those 12 games, including a win over the Penguins and Murray, and has a goals against of 1.73 and saves percentage of .945 with two shutouts. While the Penguins hover around a wildcard spot, the Golden Knights sit in first place in the entire Western Conference.

The comparison I like to make instead of that one is last season’s numbers with the Penguins for Fleury. In 38 games he went 18-10-7 with a 3.02 goals against and .909 saves percentage, numbers comparable to what Murray has done this season.

Backing up Murray this year have been a failed experiment to replace Fleury’s veteran presence in Antti Niemi, who posted a horrible 7.49 goals against and .797 while going 0-3, all ugly losses, before being waived by the team.

Since then, backups have been Casey DeSmith, who was never given an opportunity to start before being sent back to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate, and rookie Tristen Jarry.

Jarry has acclimated himself well in 16 appearances this season, going 8-2-3 with a 2.35 goals against, .922 saves percentage and a pair of shutouts. He did not look great in his final appearance before the bye week with Murray coming in in relief to get the win, but stopped 29 of 30 shots on Saturday to rebound.

His numbers are pretty solid, and actually considerably better, dare I say, than what Fleury did as Murray’s backup last season.

Jarry has at least stabilized the backup position in Fleury absence, now it might just depend on Murray getting back to being the Matt Murray that won two Stanley Cups.

FIVE ON FIVE

SCORING

Of the 130 goals the Penguins have scored through 44 games, 42 have come on the power play, or 32 percent of the teams goals. The Penguins do have the top power play unit in the NHL, but need to improve five on five. Last year, when the Penguins had the number three power play in the NHL, they scored just 22 percent of their 278 goals on the man advantage.

The Penguins simply have to find a way to score more without relying on the power play, sitting with a negative nine goal differential and 17th in goals per game. A team with Crosby, Malkin and Kessel should not ever be in the bottom half of the league in goals per game.

MISSING PIECES

In between winning the Cup in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins were fortunate not to lose too many key pieces. The same cannot be said of the time between last season’s run and now.

Fleury’s departure has already been documented, but he is far from the only one.

¯ Nick Bonino: If you ask just about anyone what the Penguins need, they will probably say a third line center. That was the role Bonino had with the team, centering the infamous HBK line with now terribly underperforming Carl Hagelin and Kessel. Bonino scored 18 goals and 37 points a season ago, and the team has not come close to replacing that production since he departed for a bigger payday in Nashville in free agency with aqcisitions of Riley Sheahan (four goals) and Greg McKegg (two goals). It is worth noting that with the Predators, Bonino has just six goals, the same total Sheahan and McKegg combined for in his old role. The latest experiment before the break was putting up and coming wing Jake Guentzel in the spot, but his long term spot is on Crosby’s wing not as a bottom-six center.

¯ Chris Kunitz: The veteran wing spent a lot of time during his parts of nine seasons with the Penguins playing with Crosby. Although he had a career low nine goals last season (he did have the overtime goal in game seven of the conference final to send the Penguins to the finals), he was still a key part of the group. Through 44 games in Tampa Bay, where he went in free agency similar to Bonino, he has five goals.

¯ Matt Cullen: This one, in my opinion, might be the most underrated loss on the list. In his two seasons with the team, both ending with championships, Cullen scored 16 and 13 goals and 32 and 31 points respectively. Beyond that the now 41 year old provided a veteran presence in the bottom six and gave the team depth and options they are in desperate need of now. He went home to Minnesota to play for the Wild this season.

¯ Trevor Daley: While his numbers didn’t jump off the page at you during his parts two seasons with the Penguins, Daley was similar to Cullen in providing depth, options and a veteran presence, just on the blue line instead of down the middle. Also like Cullen, both of his seasons in black and gold ended hoisting the Cup, and he was vital in replacing Letang’s minutes when he went out of the lineup. He is having a down season on a Detroit Red Wings team that is sitting under .500 and eight points behind the Penguins. He has just two goals and six points and is a minus-13.

All things considered, it would still be a shock if the Penguins do not go on a run and get themselves solidly into the playoffs. Winning a third consecutive Stanley Cup, an already almost near impossible task that has not been accomplished since the New York Islanders won four straight in the early 1980’s, is not quite seeming as unlikely as it was coming into the season.

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