This Year’s Penguins are Pretenders, Not Contenders

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 07: Head coach Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on against the Nashville Predators at PPG Paints Arena on October 7, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 07: Head coach Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on against the Nashville Predators at PPG Paints Arena on October 7, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** /

Is it time to say that this Pittsburgh Penguins team are pretenders?

Having lost six of their last ten and coming off an embarrassing defeat to a clearly better San Jose Sharks team, it’s fair to ask the question whether this Penguins team is a veritable contender or a middling playoff spot filler (if they even make the dance). Unfortunately for the Penguins, bewildering coaching decisions, widespread poor performance, and a roster with gaps from top-to-bottom all point to this team strongly leaning in the “pretender” column for this season.

Only nine points separate San Jose (80) and Pittsburgh (71), but the 4-0 contest between the two teams looked more of what you’d expect from a matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the healthy-scratch-for-trade-reasons version of the Ottawa Senators.  With 21 games left to play in the 2018-2019 regular season, the Penguins are likely to not see much of an improvement over their current situation, tucked delicately between the Washington Capitals four points ahead and barely staving off the surging bunch-of-jerks in Carolina by a point.

Too Many Missing Pieces

If you ask an average Penguins fan who watches most games what their biggest hole in the lineup is, you’re likely to get about seven different answers. From less than stellar goaltending in important games to a defense corps lacking the ability limit chances to a forward group that seems to have hit a collective slump together, the Penguins are struggling.

At forward, the Penguins are not getting the level of contribution they expect and need from skilled winger Phil Kessel, while one of the top-line wing spots is in a near constant rotation between Simon, Rust, and a number of other players. Tanner Pearson can’t seem to make plays to contribute and earn a spot, while players like Teddy Blueger seem like a lock, but end up in the press box. Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad, while still appearing as a better fit than Brassard are not adding as much to the lineup as hoped, while a fourth-line featuring a 42-year-old center is trying to keep things moving.

On defense, the return of Justin Schultz will help the Penguins on offense considerably, but will be severely hamstrung by the anchor on his pairing, Jack Johnson, who has been shown to statistically bring down every pairing he’s been on this season. While Olli Maatta is out for a while, you’d expect the Penguins to experiment with their defense corps, rotating in the players from the press box to see what they’re dealing with in the lead up to the playoffs, but since Sullivan refuses to bench Johnson, they’re limited in any visible improvements.

In goal, Matt Murray was beginning to find his form and put up consistent performances in net. Then, after one bad game, has been benched in favor of backup Casey DeSmith for the past couple games, who then proceeded to have a rough game against San Jose in his most recent performance. Usually most teams would try to help their goaltenders by limiting chances on net, but the Penguins have proven too stubborn in their lineup decisions and will continue to rely on Murray and DeSmith to pick up the slack.

At the trade deadline, there is no one or two pieces the Penguins can add to fill the current gaps in the lineup, let alone make it a roster that can truly compete with the top of the league.

The Penguins are a Middling Team Right Now

"Rank in the NHL:6th – Power play (19th at home, 2nd on road)13th – Penalty Kill (28th at home, 1st on road)20th – Win Percentage when leading after 1st period21st – Win Percentage when trailing after 1st period5th – Goals For %11th – Goals Against %31st – Shorthanded goals against27th – Power play opportunities (how many drawn)"

To summarize, the Penguins give up a lot of shorthanded goals, have trouble hanging onto leads, coming back from behind, score a lot of goals, but give up a lot of goals, and have horrible special teams on home ice. This year’s Penguins team is more reminiscent of the Capitals teams that used to play a run-and-gun style, hoping to outscore teams every game in order to win, except the Penguins are struggling to consistently put pucks in the net.  While none of these stats are make or break on their own, they are each part of a bigger, sadder picture, showing a Penguins team that is struggling to win.

Unless something drastic changes, the Penguins, if they even make the playoffs, are more than likely to be chum for either the Washington Capitals or one of the two top seeds. It’s clear, that even with major changes, the Penguins will struggle to compete this year.