It seems early in the season to hit the panic button, but here we are. The Penguins are 2-8-1 in their last eleven games. They are currently 13th overall in the Eastern Conference. In their last 41 games…
In eight days, we will arrive at American Thanksgiving. Teams who are not in a playoff spot at that time do not have great odds of making the playoffs. It isn’t impossible. It also isn’t probable.
The Penguins are currently *only* four points out from the wild card. It seems manageable, but the way the NHL standings system is with three-point games it makes it a lot tougher than in other sports to make up ground. There are also four teams in-between the Penguins and the second wild card. They are in a dog fight now.
The first line is in shambles, lately. They were on the ice for all four non-empty net goal. Jake Guentzel was on the ice for all five goals against. These are really good players. I’m not worried about them in the long term. I do believe there is a shakeup needed in the short term. I also hypothesize that Bryan Rust has an injury. He doesn’t look himself and I do not believe the aging curve has come for him, yet.
The Penguins are a top heavy team. They need both top six lines firing on all cylinders to make this season a success. When one of them is tanking the way the Crosby line is. Immediate action is needed.
Before I get into what those changes could look like let’s spend a moment to give the second line the props they deserve. They’ve been killing it. They have done exactly what they’ve needed to. Per Natural Stat Trick they are the top three players on the Penguins in xGF% on the season
Evgeni Malkin has points in four straight games, five points overall. Jason Zucker has points in four straight games, six overall. Rickard Rakell has four points in his last four games.
Evgeni Malkin is tied for the team lead in goals (7) and points (17). He is tied with Sidney Crosby for both.
As for the line changes there are quite a number of different ways you could do things. You could just flip the centers and leave the winger pairings intact. Jason Zucker has been awesome this year. He is getting after pucks. It reminds me a lot of how Chris Kunitz was effective. Who liked playing with Chris Kunitz?
We know the Guentzel-Malkin-Rust line can hum along. When Crosby was out an extended period of time a couple seasons ago this line was dominant. The way Malkin is playing I see no reason why it can’t be again.
Another option is:
This was working earlier in the year. Saying it was working earlier in the year is kind of understating things. All those five goal games were early in the season. Rakell was up with Crosby, Rust with Malkin. No harm in trying it again. Something has to give. The current first line has earned a timeout.
Another area of the team that hasn’t been working is the power play. I do not believe it is a personnel problem. It is a not putting players in the best position to maximize their specific skills problem. The fixes are very simple.
1. Put Evgeni Malkin on the right circle. His one-timer is one of the best offensive weapons the team has and they severely underutilize it. He is a great passer and can facilitate the puck from there as well.
2. Put Sidney Crosby down low. He is an animal down low. He can tip pucks as good as anyone. He can win battles down low to regain possession. His shooting talent is best utilized by getting him closer to the goal front. Passing from low to high is one of the more dangerous passes for a goalie to track. Who better to thread those passes than Sidney Crosby?
3. A shoot first mentality from Kris Letang. He is a great skater and can walk the blue line effortlessly both forwards and backwards. He can create shooting lanes. He needs to take them. It creates so much chaos. When you combine this with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel in front that chaos will benefit those two and their ability to take advantage of scrambling and desperate penalty killers.
It is OK if Crosby and Malkin aren’t always in those spots. I favor a power play where players are moving and not static. It should however be the default setting they try and return to when initially setting up. To Letang’s credit he did have a shoot first mentality last night and you saw how close the team came to cashing in on the chaos. He needs to keep it up. Letang finished the game with six shots on goal.
It was good to see Teddy Blueger back. This will help the bottom six, defensively. I don’t think it will change the dynamic of the Penguins being a top heavy team. What it can do is make life easier for the top six. Mike Sullivan historically has buried Teddy Blueger with defensive zone starts and tougher matchups. His value is being able to handle those minutes without being clobbered. In Blueger’s debut he finished CF 11 and CA 6. Half of his ice time was up against Auston Matthews It’s good to have Teddy back in the lineup.
Kasperi Kapanen returned to being a healthy scratch with Teddy Blueger’s return. If the team is struggling to find some cap space to recall Ty Smith I have a pretty straight forward suggestion. Send Kasperi Kapanen to waivers. There are no negatives in doing so. Who cares about his confidence or how he receives the message. He’s been given a million chances in his career. If he gets claimed. Awesome! Good riddance. The more likely outcome is that he clears and you can clear 1.125M by sending him down. His cap hit is just burning space in the press box right now. Any relief would be welcome.
Matt Murray played his first game in Pittsburgh since being a Penguin. He was 35 for 37 (.946) and made some pretty big saves in the second period. It is a good starting point for Murray who has now only played two games on the season. The Maple Leafs could really use the 2016-17 Matt Murray.
Thanks for reading!