Pittsburgh Penguins: Ten Questions Facing the Penguins Before the Playoffs

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 27: Derick Brassard
PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 27: Derick Brassard /

With only 12 games remaining, including more sets of back-to-back games, the Pittsburgh Penguins lead the Metropolitan division.

Right on the Pittsburgh Penguin’s heels are both the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals.  The Pittsburgh Penguins have carried a solid stretch of play into recent weeks, but there are remaining questions around the team. Will these questions have answers come playoff time?

The questions:

  • Can Chad Ruhwedel continue playing at a more than adequate level on the bottom pairing?

Once Ian Cole was shipped out as part of the deals that brought Derick Brassard to Pittsburgh, a hole on defense opened up. In the game immediately prior to the deadline, Matt Hunwick was a disaster. And that’s putting it gently. At the deadline, Jim Rutherford did not acquire a depth defenseman. This meant that one of Matt Hunwick or Chad Ruhwedel would take on a role as a regular starter.  Hunwick got the first opportunity and did not seize it, looking lost and often out of position.

Ruhwedel was given a chance and has looked ‘okay’ during most games. Ruhwedel has largely been able to fly under the radar during these last few games, which is exactly what you want from a depth defenseman. The Penguins are taking a big risk relying on one of Ruhwedel or Hunwick to begin with. They also need to ask what happens in case of an injury to one of the other 5 defenseman?

  • Will Derick Brassard mesh with Phil Kessel?

If Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby have something in common, it’s that they expect a lot out of their linemates.  It seems Derick Brassard is just beginning to learn what exactly that might mean. In 7 games with the Penguins, Brassard has one goal and one assist. That’s not the production the Penguin’s were hoping for when they acquired him from the Senators. Brassard and Kessel developing chemistry is not a given and could make or break the rest of the season.

Will Jarry and DeSmith be able to keep the Penguins afloat until Matt Murray’s return?

COLUMBUS, OH - FEBRUARY 18: The Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate with goaltender Tristan Jarry #35 of the Pittsburgh Penguins after defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2 in a game on February 18, 2018 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH – FEBRUARY 18: The Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate with goaltender Tristan Jarry /

Starting 30 games this year with a record of 17-10-0-2, the combined efforts of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have allowed the Penguins to remain competitive in a tight division. While neither are having a lights out type of season, both are carrying a save percentage and a goals against average better than starter Matt Murray.

"Murray – 23-13-0-2, GAA 2.82, SV .909Jarry – 13-6-0-2, GAA 2.76, SV .910DeSmith – 4-4-0-0, GAA 2.44, SV .919"

All Jarry and DeSmith will hopefully have to do is “hold down the fort” until Murray can return from his concussion, which brings us to…

  • What kind of shape will Matt Murray be in after his return?

In 2016, Marc Andre Fleury was having a pretty spectacular season for the Penguins when a concussion put him on Injured Reserve in April. Rookie Matt Murray stepped in and played most of the rest of the playoffs, except for two games where Fleury went 0-1, with a GAA of 3.04 and a SV% of 0.875.  On the flip side, after a sustained concussion earlier this season, Marc Andre Fleury has returned to provide one of the better back-stops in the Western Conference.  Matt Murray is not Marc Andre Fleury. What we don’t know is how (or even when) Murray will recover from being out with a concussion. Can we expect a well-rested Murray for the playoffs or is it possible that Murray might not even play in the playoffs?

  • What in the world should we expect from Conor Sheary?

I’m not sure there’s a more frustrating player in the Penguin’s lineup right now than Conor Sheary. What makes Sheary so frustrating is the flashes of potential he’ll occasionally show, as with the two-goal outburst in the pivotal game against Philadelphia. Unfortunately, those two goals account for 20% of his entire output for this season in 67 games. Currently Sheary has 1/3rd the amount of goals as last season, but in 8 more games. Conor Sheary is just not producing and that’s a problem. Even more so when he’s getting starting opportunities on the top-line with Crosby and Guentzel. The expectations for Sheary come down to one factor, where he plays in the lineup, which leads us to our next question.

What does the lineup look like in the playoffs with or without a healthy Bryan Rust?

CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 2: Mark Giordano #5 of the Calgary Flames battles against Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburg Penguins at Scotiabank Saddledome on November 2, 2017 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
CALGARY, AB – NOVEMBER 2: Mark Giordano /

Bryan Rust has appeared in 57 games this season, putting up 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists) in that time. Unfortunately for the Penguins, Rust received a concussion following a questionable hit in the game against the Philadelphia Flyers, with no timetable given to return. Prior to the concussion, Rust was seeing time up and down the lineup, contributing on the top three lines. Without Rust in the line-up, the Penguins will have to rely on Conor Sheary or rookies like Dominik Simon or Daniel Sprong.  With Rust in the lineup, Sheary moves to a third or fourth line role, which right now better fits his performance.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins /

Pittsburgh Penguins

  • Will Evgeni Malkin catch fellow Russian Nikita Kucherov in the scoring race and/or Ovechkin/Laine in goal scoring?

Nikita Kucherov and Evgeni Malkin continue to fight in a tight battle for the Art Ross trophy for leading scorer this season.  The fight will likely last until the final few games, as Kucherov currently leads by 1 point. While Kucherov has 13 games left, and a one point advantage, Malkin has 12 games left, but also has one fewer game played than Kucherov.  The difference right now is that no player in the NHL is lighting things up the way Evgeni Malkin is. Since the beginning of 2018, Malkin has 49 points (24 goals and 25 assists) leading the Penguins to a resurgence in the standings.  Additionally, Malkin finds himself only one goal behind both Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals and Patrik Laine of the Jets for the Rocket Richard trophy.

  • What will the penalty kill look like by the playoffs?

In seven games with the Penguins, Brassard significantly increased his shorthanded ice-time versus his career averages. Beyond Brassard, the usual penalty kill suspects will continue to play a role, as long as they’re healthy. These include Hagelin, Dumoulin, Letang, Sheahan, Kuhnhackl, Oleksiak, Rowney, Maatta, and Rust. Additionally, if Josh Jooris stays with the big club, expect him to get some time shorthanded, as he did in Carolina.

  • Will the Penguin’s still have the best power play in the league by the end of the regular season?

The Penguins currently sit at 1.4% above the next closest power play unit (Winnipeg Jets). With only 12 games left, unless the Penguins get a statistically surprising amount of power plays in that time, they’ll likely finish around the same conversion rate. Even if the Jets catch fire, which is possible with Laine, it won’t move the needle much at this point. In short, the answer is likely a yes.

  • Can anybody actually explain what is and what isn’t goaltender interference?

I can’t. Brian Dumoulin can’t. Mike Sullivan can’t. Anyone? Bueller?

Bonus question:

  • Is Sid the most skilled hockey player in the NHL?
Pittsburgh Penguins sidney crosby vs ottawa
OTTAWA, ON – NOVEMBER 16: Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87) takes up position in front of Ottawa Senators Goalie Craig Anderson (41) during first period National Hockey League action between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators on November 16, 2017, at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, ON, Canada. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

I’m going to say something I’m not sure I’ve said much since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009… I agree with Dan Bylsma.  In an interview, former Penguins coach Bylsma said that “Sid is not the best hockey player in the world, skill-wise.”  You can listen/read the full interview here.

It’s not up for debate that Crosby is one of the best players around and has been for some time. That’s not what Bylsma is saying. What Bylsma is getting at is that while very naturally gifted, Crosby works abnormally hard to round out his game.  For my money, the most skilled player around is Evgeni Malkin and I’ve been saying that for a while.