Over the last six games the Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to show what their true potential. Their roster is loaded with offensive talent and they have a brand new head coach in Mike Sullivan who has found a way to utilize these stars better than his predecessor Mike Johnston.
After starting 0-4 under Sullivan, the Penguins have quietly won four of their last six and have scored five goals three times in that span.
These are the Penguins everyone was expecting this season when general manager Jim Rutherford set out with the goal of creating four scoring lines. However, there’s a recurring theme, take a look at the stars point totals in the last six games.
- Sidney Crosby: 5 goals, 3 assists, 8 points, +3 skater
- Evgeni Malkin: 3 goals, 6 assists, 9 points, -1 skater
- Phil Kessel: 3 goals, 1 assist, 4 points, +4 skater
- Kris Letang: 2 goals, 6 assists, 8 points, +3 skater
Pittsburgh will be a competitive team when their star players show up and have productive games. That’s the way it’s been for the Penguins since winning the Stanley Cup and it’s unlikely to change. But the issue is that their depth players who made the team better, on paper, like Eric Fehr, Sergei Plotnikov, Nick Bonino and David Perron have not been producing at the level that was expected of them.
Pittsburgh Penguins Defense Remains An Area of Concern
I have an extremely unpopular opinion and almost all of Pittsburgh disagrees with me, while many working inside the NHL agree with me. Kris Letang isn’t a true number one defender and yes, he is an overpaid player. If he’s on a contract making between $4-6 million than it’s a great value for the Penguins, but at $7.25 million he is simply not worth it. On many other teams Letang is a high end number two defender, but in Pittsburgh he’s their top guy.
The common argument made is that Letang is a top-tier defender because of his point production. However, this misses the entire point of the position, it’s to play defense and point production is an added benefit. This metric should not be relied upon as the primary gauge of a defender’s value.
Here’s a common response to the notion that Letang isn’t as great as his points would suggest from a Pittsburgh fan.
Kris Letang has 18 points in his last 18 games. Literally can't laugh at people that think he's overrated/overpaid enough
— Dad Chad (@madchad412) January 3, 2016
Add-on that Letang can only play with a few select defensive partners and the contract looks even worse. Over the last four years, the only two partners that Letang has found success with is alongside former Penguin Paul Martin and young defender Olli Maatta, just take a look at the with and without analysis from this year.
Since the Penguins paid Letang $7.25 million, he’s taken up a lot of salary they were going to dedicate to their blue line. That leaves young defender Brian Dumoulin and the vastly overrated Ben Lovejoy as the Penguins “shutdown pairing.” They have Ian Cole playing in a big role most nights and veteran defender Trevor Daley as one of their top-four defenders. It’s no secret that Daley is monumental upgrade over Rob Scuderi, but despite his flashy plays with the puck he’s a bottom pairing defender. It’s only a matter of time before Daley, like Cole before him, is exposed playing in too large of a role for his current condition.
Many believe the Penguins ability to compete this season for the Stanley Cup and these last six games have given them hope. The Penguins have shown us what they are, a high-scoring offensive team with a lot of high end talent. But like the Montreal Canadians and the New York Rangers their flaws have being masked by strong goaltending.
One TV analyst, writer and former hockey executive Bruce Cooper went on the record and gave me his input on the Penguins struggles and why the team will likely struggle in the playoffs.
One serious long term problem hampering the Pens is that 70% ($50 million Dollars) of the club’s $71.5M salary cap is tied up in just seven players leaving just $21.4M for the other 15 roster spots. All seven of those players — forwards Evgeni Malkin ($9.5M), Sidney Crosby ($8.7M), Phil Kessel ($6.8M), Patric Hornqvist ($4.25M), and Chris Kunitz ($3.85M), defenseman Kris Letang ($7.25M), and goalie Marc Andre Fleury ($5.75M) — are also on long term no-trade or no-movement contracts which unless one or more were to be moved will keep Jim Rutherford’s hands tied to improve this situation for the rest of the decade. All of these seven cap hogs but Kessel (who joined the team this year from Toronto) have also missed significant stretches to injury during their time with the Penguins.
Fleury’s outstanding goaltending covered up for the serious deficiences on the salary starved blueline and dismal scoring (27th in the NHL at 91 on January 2nd), but not enough to keep the Penguins from being on-the-outside-looking-in in the Eastern Conference playoff race through the turn of the New Year.
And Cooper isn’t alone, there’s a consensus around the league (outside of Pittsburgh) that their main problem stems from the blue line. Ask anyone in Pittsburgh and the response you get is that the blue line is fine, they spent enough money and they’re good enough to compete. This is not the case and those outside are able to look past the preconceived biases and see where the problem truly lies.
Take away Fleury and the Penguins are a team capable of scoring many goals, but are exposed defensively. Just look at how horrifically the team performed when Jeff Zatkoff took over. Luckily, the Penguins have the luxury of having a future star goaltender in Matt Murray just waiting in the minors and he was able to give them a chance to win when Fleury was out with a concussion.
It is true that goaltenders can takeover playoff runs, but it’s not something you should rely upon. Unless Rutherford intends to make good on his word to acquire a top-four defender, two are actually needed, then it’s hard to see this team competing for the Stanley Cup. Sure, they might score a lot of goals and could be entertaining to watch during the remainder of the season, but their luck will eventually run out.