Coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships and 11 consecutive playoff appearances, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been less than impressive in the 2017-18 NHL season. At 20-18-3, the Pens are a point out of a wild card playoff spot, three points out of last place in the Metropolitan Division and 10 points behind their rival, the Washington Capitals, for the lead in the Metro. This video of Brock Boeser sliding behind their defense for a goal after Carl Hagelin failed to score on the other end just about sums up their season.
How’d they get here? Is it a classic case of championship hangover? Have they been bitten by the injury bug? Or are they just not performing to their full potential? Well, the best explanation lies somewhere in the middle.
We’ve seen this Penguins team recover from slow starts before. When they won the Cup in the 2015-16 season, Pittsburgh started off 15-14-3 and fired then-head coach Mike Johnston, replacing him with current head coach Mike Sullivan.
It’s probably safe to say Sullivan’s job is safe — for now. However, changes could be on the horizon. In the past two seasons, Pittsburgh’s scored a combined 70 goals above the league average. They’re two goals below that mark this season, and struggling to find production outside of their star players. Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin have a combined 118 points. The other nine forwards currently skating on their depth chart have a combined 97 points.
Hagelin’s far off his usual production, scoring only six points through 40 games. Conor Sheary hasn’t built off his breakout season last year where he neared a point-per-game average, scoring just 16 points in 41 games. To make matters worse, the losses of Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz have not been sufficiently replaced.
Even Crosby hasn’t been producing up to his ability. Incredibly, Crosby’s finished every season in his career averaging higher than a point-per-game. However, this season he’s scored 36 points through 41 games and is on pace for the lowest scoring rate of his illustrious career.
Not only are the Penguins struggling to score goals, they’re having a tough time preventing them. Pittsburgh’s allowed 12 more goals than the league average. Aside from allowing nearly .5 goals more per-game than his career average and posting a significantly worse save percentage, goaltender Matt Murray’s also struggled with injuries of late.
On the back end, Pittsburgh’s also struggled to stay healthy. Matt Hunwick missed 15 games early in the season with a concussion, Justin Schultz missed nearly the entire month of December with a lower-body injury before returning last night for the Pens’ 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers and Kris Letang returned for the game against Philly after struggling with a lower-body injury for a few games.
While the number of goals allowed is troubling, the Pens are starting to get healthy on the back end. Murray’s numbers also don’t translate to the potential he has to be a top-tier goalie in the league, and with a healthy defense in front of him his play will only improve.
The worry with Pittsburgh, and the only thing that could hold them back to the point of missing the playoffs, is their scoring depth. There’s no doubt that Crosby can elevate his game, but can the fourth line start contributing? Can Hagelin start producing again? Can guys like Sheary and Jake Guentzel elevate their game and continue to develop? Ultimately, this team has too much skill for the answer to be no. It’s just a matter of when for the Pittsburgh Penguins.