With the 2017-2018 season about 25% complete, here’s the Pittsburgh Penguins early season Report Card. Here are the grades:
The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing a good job avoiding the common mistakes of the past. Despite being the back-to-back reigning Stanley Cup champions, they don’t show any outright complacency or sense of entitlement. There are no reports of disruptions caused by lazy players, and Head Coach Mike Sullivan has not had to call out anyone for under-performing. However, at times, they lapse into a passive approach on the forecheck – something that all but sank this team several years ago before Sullivan’s arrival. This professor thinks it will get better on the next term’s report card.
There have been some ugly numbers so far this season. The early blowout losses have made certain stats (misleadingly) lopsided, but the Pens need to find some consistency. In addition to the defensive breakdowns, there have been several games where the offense has sputtered. The Penguins simply must do a better job of playing within their system consistently, and the numbers will take care of themselves. The last couple weeks have shown real improvement, including a close, low-scoring loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, who had pulverized the Pens in a 10-1 blowout at the start of the season.
Given the handful of new players this season, it was expected that coach Mike Sullivan would do some experimentation with line combinations. His methodical approach has discovered some combos that work and eliminated others. The third and fourth lines of the Penguins seem genuinely on the upswing. Both of those lines are starting to possess the puck in the attacking zone a bit, with enough skill to generate some scoring chances. On the downside, last season’s phenom Jake Guentzel is truly struggling to find some synergy with line-mates. Although he doesn’t look out of place, he seems to have lost a little elusiveness. Some of that might be the fact that other teams are paying attention to him now, so he doesn’t have the time and space he had initially as Crosby’s winger. Jake will keep at it – look for him to find way to up his game as the season progresses. Stay optimistic – previous report cards have had higher scores in this area.
Home Economics: A
Ok, this analogy is a bit stretched, but the Penguins have looked superb at home this season. They play with a bit more interest in front of the home fans, which is good. They have enjoyed stellar goaltending at home – which is also good. They have also show a very slight tendency to try and be a bit fancy at home – not so good – and the only reason for not getting an A+ at home.
Some reasons for punishment we are seeing so far:
Kris Letang – Taking a lot longer to get his game together than anyone expected.
Sid – One of the more inconsistent seasons we have seen from him in a while
Geno – If he could use that anger to launch a few more shots…
Jake Guentzel – I hate calling him out, but c’mon Jake, we are rooting for you!
Some positives we are seeing so far:
Phil Kessel – I’m still scratching my head at what was in the water in the Toronto head office.
Matt Murray – I guess after two cups it’s safe to say he is no fluke. Underrated for sure – Wow.
Tristan Jarry – No wins, but has looked like Murray Jr. in net so far. Light years better than..who was it we had at the start of the season?
Mike Sullivan – I know I rave about him a lot, but he really seems to have this team wired. Even when they are slightly under-performing, there is no panic, no serious bad habits, and no loss of confidence.
Although I wish the Pens would win every game 6-0, given all the circumstances, I think the Pens are almost right where they want to be. They are on a pace to finish near the top of the East, they are no longer getting beat up each night (thank you Ryan Reaves!), and the new faces are getting acclimated just fine. Look for one or two minor moves by GM Jim Rutherford at some point, and a steady improvement in Pens play as we round the corner of the season early next year.