Pittsburgh Penguins: Even strength play at heart of early season struggles

The Pittsburgh Penguins haven't looked like the same team to win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years, and even strength play has been the biggest reason why.

(Photo Credit: Michael Miller)

The Pittsburgh Penguins entered this season with aspirations of becoming the first organization since the New York Islanders of the early 1980’s to win the Stanley Cup three consecutive times.

It would not be easy, it never is winning Lord Stanley’s Cup just once, but this season brought about several serious obstacles that if not handled probably could doom the Penguins’ year.

One of their biggest strengths the last two seasons had been their depth both at center and goalie, two of the more critical positions on the ice. This past offseason saw both positions get hit hard, with the Penguins doing little to address them since.

Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen left via free agency, and long-time franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was selected in the expansion draft by the new Vegas Golden Knights. The team also lost multiple veteran presences in their lineup that were relied upon when the games mattered the most – including Chris Kunitz, who is the current active leader in Stanley Cup Final victories. 

Pittsburgh also had to replace Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, and the aforementioned Cullen, Fleury and Bonino.

This season would already be viewed as a challenge, but few figured that they’d see this level of struggles a quarter into the season.

There have been many things to go wrong so far this season, ranging from goaltending depth to the struggle of their star players, namely Sidney Crosby.

Here are three more things that the Penguins need to improve upon if they want to get into position for any potential three-peat.

5-on-5 play

While being great on special teams can make a difference between winning and losing, how a team plays at even strength is a better sign of their long-term success.

During the postseason last year, the Penguins didn’t have the best of numbers in 5-on-5 play, posting below average possession numbers during even-strength play. They were consistently outshot, but stellar goaltending and timely goal scoring helped make the difference.

This season, at 5-on-5, the Penguins have been even worse, but the difference has been they haven’t received the same level of goaltending they did during the postseason. You can’t blame the goaltending completely, expecting the same over an 82-game season is unrealistic, for any to have played the position.

While the Penguins haven’t been bad in puck possession, ranking tenth in the league at 50.91%, which is also far better than what they posted in the playoffs… they haven’t been able to capitalize on those numbers.

Pittsburgh ranks last in goals-for-per 60 minutes (GF/60), and second to last in goals-against-per-60 minutes (GA/60), and subsequently, goals-for percentage (GF%). They are allowing nearly three goals per 60 minutes (2.98) played at 5-on-5 all the while scoring less than two (1.79).

Some of it can be seen as bad luck as they are getting chances – posting the tenth highest expected-goals-for-per 60 minutes (xGF/60). It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise… they also have the worst shooting and save percentages.

Getting scored on is coming from allowing the opposition to get into prime scoring areas without contestation. Of the shots that Murray has faced at 5-on-5, 22.45% of them have come from “high-danger” areas, the third highest mark of any goalie with at least 400 minutes played at even strength.

Lack of scoring depth

Most of the Penguins’ past success not only came off the stick of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel but also from their ability to be a threat to score with all four lines.

That hasn’t been the case this year. While Bonino didn’t have a great offensive season, he and Cullen have been far more versatile than any of the new trio of Riley Sheahan, Carter Rowney and Greg McKegg.

The relentless offensive attack based off of speed and forechecking has been replaced with a more old-school approach of the plodding grinders. While McKegg, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Ryan Reaves have been able to wear down the opposition with their physical play, it has done little to impact the scoreboard.

Tiring out the opposition is nice, but if they can’t capitalize on it while the top-six is in a scoring funk, it does little good.

Pittsburgh was there at their absolute best when all four lines were a threat to score, which just isn’t the case at this point.

The fourth line has a current goals-for percentage (GF%) of 25% and is producing less than a goal-per-60 (0.93). They have been strong in the defensive zone while producing positive possession numbers despite starting the majority of their shifts in their own end; it doesn’t matter much if they can’t finish.

It hasn’t just been the fourth line, but the whole bottom-six has struggled to score. After his trade from the Detroit Red Wings, Sheahan didn’t score a goal in his first 11 games as a Penguin and has just one in 13 total contests.

Having Conor Sheary adds a scoring touch that the bottom-six needs and the early returns have been positive. Over the last three games having spent most of his even strength time with Sheahan and Patric Hornqvist, the trio have combined for ten points, five goals and five assists.

That’s heading in the right direction, but more will be needed down the stretch.

Sidney Crosby’s scoring slump

While 16 points in 22 games isn’t bad, it isn’t what we expect out of the Penguins’ captain. Crosby went 11 games without a goal, and just has six on the season. Not the most inspiring of starts from the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner.

The dynamic duo that Crosby formed with Jake Guentzel after they were paired together hasn’t gotten off to the same start this season. Guentzel, in his first full season in the NHL, isn’t scoring at the same rate he was last year.

He is still on pace for a respectable 40-point season but far from the 33 he put up in 40 games last year.

Throw in Bryan Rust – who has just two goals, and the Crosby line has scored one goal less, as a trio, than Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have combined for together.

The lack of scoring depth is really putting pressure on the top-six to produce even more. While the Malkin line has delivered, the Penguins will need the top line to get things going.

If there is any team that can turn things on at a moments notice, it’s the Penguins. They have done it time-and-time again.

While in a three-way tie for first place in the Metropolitan division, in about three weeks the Penguins are the team that can safely pull away from the pack. They have that kind of talent.

There is a lot of warning signs for their early play, they got away with the same stuff during the playoffs last year, but doing so over the next three-quarters of the season will be different.

Can the Penguins fix these key issues in time for the playoffs? Are they still the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

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