With a 6-7-3 record in their first 16 games (and a terrible record in their last 41 games), it’s pretty clear there are some concerns with that Pittsburgh penguins at the moment.
The top line was terrible, the penalty struggled, Tristan Jarry was disappointing and Kris Letang was unusually bad at the start of the year. Some of these things will (hopefully?) correct themselves. But some of them might not.
As we head into a big three-game, four-night triangle this week, let’s rank the current problem areas.
1. Bryan Rost
When this past offseason started, I had Rust low on the list of priorities when it came to re-signing the pending free agents. As good as he’s been in recent years and for a role as big as he’s played in two years Stanley cup Winning teams was the potential investment that scared me the most. Mainly because I didn’t think he would age well, whereas if he did hit the open market he would be the type of player I would have viewed as a high-risk long-term investment.
While Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are older, they are much better players and start from a much higher power and skill point. Her decline won’t look like the decline of a player like Rust who doesn’t have that much room to fall.
Rust struggled early on.
The production wasn’t there, despite spending his entire Ice Age with one of Sidney Crosby or Malkin, and he just looks lost at times. It doesn’t work for him on 5v5, it doesn’t work for him on the power play, and if that turns out to be the beginning of the end for him, that creates another need for a top six winger.
This is a HUGE year for Jarry. Not just because the Penguins need him to be good, but because he has to be good as an upcoming unrestricted free agent.
He wasn’t great.
He comes into play on Thursday with a .900 save ratio on the team and has been struggling for the past few weeks, losing starts to Casey DeSmith.
This is so concerning because as long as Jarry is the Penguins’ goalie, we still have no idea what kind of goalie he actually is. He’s got two All-Star game appearances under his belt and he’s shown lightning for being a top-half starter in the league, but he’s also had just as many stretches where he’s been a problem.
Goalie has been this team’s biggest Achilles’ heel in the playoffs for the past two years, and they keep running back with the same duo.
DeSmith is okay over short distances, but if you have to rely on him being a consistent starter, you’re going to have problems. Jarry must be good, and we just don’t know if he is.
3. The bottom six
Those two lines bring me bad vibes back to the 2014 and 2015 era penguins. You know the teams. If Lee Stempniak, Daniel Winnik, Zach Sill and whatever collection of guys could throw them together in a third and fourth row.
Jeff Carter has to score to be valuable and he doesn’t really do that anymore.
Ryan Poehling and Josh Archibald are just the classic “Remember some Guys” guys to fill the spot, and Kasperi Kapanen can’t even consistently crack the lineup or hit the ice, despite netting more than $3 million against the salary cap .
With the Crosby line struggling and the third and fourth lines largely non-existent, the Penguins are once again a one-line team (Malkin’s line) for now.
With the almost $6 million they’ve invested in Kapanen and Jan Rutta, it seems like a really missed opportunity to add someone here who could really have expanded the lineup and built some depth.
4. Special Teams
This has been one of the biggest problems for the Penguins this season.
The penalty, which has been a strength in recent years, is among the worst in the league, earning opponents at least a goal most nights.
The less talk about the power game at this point, the better. It passes neither the eye test nor the number test.
It’s frustrating because the Penguins’ 5v5 numbers are at least reasonably decent and should have made for a better record up to this point. But the special teams absolutely sink them.
The personnel changes at PK have me concerned about their ability to recover and the power play struggles are not a new issue at all. You need more of these two groups.
5. The defense as a whole
It was the only major change the Penguins made to their roster this offseason, sending out John Marino and Mike Matheson while promoting Jeff Petry, Rutta and Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
The early return?
Petry was okay but didn’t really have the impact I was originally hoping for while Ty Smith, the player they brought in for Marino (who has been outstanding in New Jersey so far), is buried in the minor leagues.
Then there’s the ongoing decline of Brian Dumoulin, who no longer seems a viable option as a top defender.
All of this has led to some issues with defending zone coverage, penalty shootouts and anything to do with their ability to suppress shots and prevent goals. It is a problem.
6. The game by Kris Letang
I’ll put him in his own category because it’s a big deal.
On the one hand, I think Letang will fight back. He still has the skills to be an elite player and he was only an elite player last season. I don’t think he suddenly fell off a cliff or hit a wall and ran out of breath.
But they have invested a lot in him and they need him to be good.
Not just because of the investment, but because they have no other option than #1 defender with big minute and all situations.
They need him, and right now he’s off to a terrible start.
Right now I’m willing to say it’s just a bad track.
But if we’re approaching halfway through the season and he hasn’t freaked out? That could be a big problem.
7. The top line
They also deserve criticism for this level of play.
But I’m not too worried about their long-term play either. At least as far as Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are concerned. My earlier concerns about Rust remain, but we know Rickard Rakell can play at this point if they want to return there.
In the end, this group should – emphasis on should – be good. They are not a big problem for me.