The Pittsburgh Penguins have found themselves in an early season funk, territory that is not entirely unfamiliar ground for them. In each of the last two seasons, the Penguins have gotten off to a mediocre start at best before igniting and powering their way through the rest of the season to finish near the top of the league. Is it unreasonable to think that they can pull it off for a third season in a row?
Prior to Thursday night’s loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, I thought it would be interesting to compare and assess some stats between this season and the same point last season. So here are some selected points of comparison after the first 10-games of each season:
- Last Season: 5-4-1 = 11 Points
- This Season: 5-3-2 = 12 Points
- Assessment: Roughly equivalent start as last year
- Last Season: 30 (3.0 per game)
- This Season: 24 (2.4 per game)
- Assessment: Goals for is ~20% off from last season
- Last Season: 13 Points (4G, 9A)
- This Season: 13 Points (3G, 10A)
- Assessment: Roughly equivalent start as last year
- Last Season: 13 Points (3G, 10A)
- This Season: 15 Points (3G, 12A)
- Assessment: ~15% increase in points this season
All Other Players
- Last Season: 26G
- This Season: 18G
- Assessment: Scoring by others is off ~31% from last season
- Last Season: 307 (30.7 per game)
- This Season: 337 (33.7 per game)
- Assessment: Giving up 9.8% more shots this season
- Last Season: 33 (3.3 per game)
- This Season: 21 (2.1 per game)
- Assessment: Goals against is ~57% better this season
- Last Season: 463 mins, 27GA, 3.49 GAA, 0.892
- This Season: 498 mins, 18GA, 2.17 GAA, 0.933
- Assessment: ~38% improvement in GAA and ~4.6% improvement in save percentage
- Last Season: 144 mins, 5GA, 2.08 GAA, 0.920
- This Season: 124 mins, 3GA, 1.45 GAA, 0.957
- Assessment: ~30% improvement in GAA and ~4% improvement in save percentage
Looking purely at the stats, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Penguins need to find more balanced scoring behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Goaltending has been great so far with significant improvement over last season’s start, but the Penguins’ defensive game is off last year’s pace. There is no doubt that having both Gonchar and Whitney out of the lineup has been a contributing factor to the lagging defensive play and to some extent the lagging offensive production. But the real issue here more than anything else has been the lack of a balanced offense, and there are many contributing factors to this not the least of which is the large turnover in the off-season and the resultant number of new players trying to fit into the roster and learn the new system.
Looking beyond the simple stats assessments, you can’t help but see some very troubling signs for the team so far in the early going. Sitting on a 3-game losing streak is bad enough, however, it is how they have played in those last 3-games that gives rise to significant concern. There is definitely something wrong with the forwards in Pittsburgh when the team has averaged just 3-shots on goal per period across 5 of the last 9 periods of play. WIth several new players in the lineup and their 2 top defensemen out for an extended period of time, the Penguins are going through a period of adjustment and struggle. Undoubtedly, the Penguins coaching staff has had to start back at square one this season in getting the new players to buy into the system that was praised for the Penguins success last season. As we have seen in season’s past, it takes time and the players aren’t pre-disposed to embrace it right off the bat….especially when the team is struggling. Unless and until that buy-in happens, the team will continue to struggle and be inconsistent.
One also has to question how much chemistry this new group of teammates has been able to develop. This off-season the Penguins had the largest turnover of players since returning from the lockout. Chemistry is not a guarantee, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Several Penguins are returning with the fresh experience of the Stanley Cup Finals, while other new players are coming in trying to learn a new system and find their spot in the roster.
We have seen the Therrien line combination merry-mixer in full swing, but we have seen few matchups that have worked well as of yet. As a result, we have seen Sidney Crosby making all too fancy, breathtakingly blind passes that have led to turnovers and missed chances. We have also seen Evgeni Malkin in apparent frustration trying to take things into his own hands, only to cough up the puck to the opposition and cause odd-man chances. And although Malkin can load up on a powerplay shot from the blue line like no other, he has been a significant defensive liability in that position, normally executed to perfection by Sergei Gonchar. Miroslav Satan has found himself being juggled anywhere from the first to the third line, and Ruslan Fedotenko is just starting to click and gain the confidence that he needs to exhibit if he is to play with any impact. Jordan Staal is a defensive juggernaut, but he has yet to find the offensive flair he displayed in his rookie year. The Penguins need Jordan Staal to deliver this season, and so far no dice.
Only Michel Therrien and his coaching staff can truly disect the team’s problems and identify solutions. It would be naive for me to presume to know how to get the team out of its’ current funk. However, it seems to me that the Penguins need to get back to the basics for awhile. It sounds cliche, but they need to keep it simple, get traffic in front of the opposing net and shoot the puck. Abandon the fancy pass play attempts that have led to dangerous turnovers. Stop trying to endlessly cycle the puck in the offensive zone where Penguins’ forwards are often missing the pickup behind the net, leading to turnovers and lost opportunities. Keep it simple. There will be ample time in the season to get to their finesse game. Right now, they need to develop some chemistry, generate some offense and build some confidence. They also need to focus on putting together a complete and solid 60-minutes of play. If they can accomplish that, then they can build from there.
The Penguins have been dealt some adversity with the extended loss of Gonchar and Whitney, and now possibly Crosby for some period of time. The Penguins will seek to do what they did last season and find a way to use that adversity to their advantage, and in so doing build up their character. Only time will tell if they can pull it together, and whether the coaching staff can pull off another season rally after a mediocre start. I certainly hope they do, and think that they have the potential to do so. But there is often an unbridged gap between potential and accomplishment. That is the challenge that the Penguins must conquer.