Round 1 losses: a feeling that is becoming all too familiar to fans of all Pittsburgh-based sports teams lately, especially for their beloved Pittsburgh Penguins. Since the Penguins’ heartbreaking second-round loss to the Washington Capitals in 2018, they have won just three of their 14 previous playoff games, including this year’s loss in six games to the New York Islanders. This article will decipher what went wrong for the team, as well as potential fixes they can make in the offseason.
This was a series to forget for Tristan Jarry. He recorded a .888 save percentage (SV%) as well as a 3.18 goals against average (GAA) through six games against the Islanders, ranking 18th and 16th, respectively, among all goalies who made playoff appearances. He also recorded minus-7.9 goals saved above expected (GSAx), the worst playoff performance in this statistic since Ilya Bryzgalov in 2014. On top of poor statistical performance, Jarry also made questionable decisions with his play of the puck, most notably his tape-to-tape pass to Josh Bailey in double overtime of an ever-so-important Game 5.
While Jarry had a painfully difficult series that likely cost the Penguins a second-round berth, it’s hard to see any way in which he doesn’t return for next year, and rightfully so. He put together an impressive campaign this season after a tough start to the season, and this was his first true taste of playoff hockey. However, I do feel the Penguins will look to acquire a more sustainable tandem option to play with him.
One name that comes to mind is Elvis Merzlikins, who posted a .916 SV% through 28 games this season, ranking second among all goalies who didn’t make the playoffs. Columbus has previously voiced that there is a slim likelihood that both Merzlikins and his partner Joonas Korpisalo return for 2021-22. This, accompanied by the fact that their draft stock has plummeted, sets the Penguins up nicely to make a push for the 27-year-old Latvian goaltender in the offseason.
While Jarry was by no means stellar in this series, the defensive system that head coach Mike Sullivan and his crew built up over the course of this season was rather impressive. The defensive corps established themselves as an up-and-coming unit in the league, with players such as Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci finding their game at the right time.
However, this defensive structure dramatically declined in the playoffs, allowing 21 goals in their six games against the Islanders in Round 1. A good majority of this was due to Jarry’s inability to steal saves for the team like he did in the regular season, but the Penguins allowing countless high-danger prime scoring opportunities to a team as defensively-minded as the Islanders is inexcusable.
Part of the issue comes down to the poor defensive play by forwards who are typically more reliable in their own end of the ice, primarily Sidney Crosby. However, a shake-up on the back end would do the Penguins some good. I personally feel a defenseman like Vince Dunn of the St. Louis Blues would help solidify the Penguins’ top four much better than that of Ceci, whose contract expires come July 28.
Ceci performed well over the course of this season, but his lack of consistency combined with an expiring contract provide the Penguins with an opportunity to grab someone better. Dunn notched 20 points in 43 games this season, along with a 54.3 percent Corsi rating. St. Louis is coming off the heels of an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche and will likely look to make changes in the offseason, providing the Penguins with a legitimate opportunity to bolster their top four.
Stars Burn Out
The Penguins’ regular season was highlighted with the top players doing just that: being top-end talents. This was most noticeable in the points column, as Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and Kris Letang all notched 40-plus point seasons in a condensed 56-game schedule. Unfortunately, the story was not the same for the Penguins in the playoffs.
The Penguins tallied 16 goals over the course of the series, only four of which came from the top line of Guentzel-Crosby-Rust. While the team’s depth pieces notching a majority of the goals demonstrates how lethal this lineup can be when fully healthy, it also showed that the stars were, once again, not good enough.
This lack of production from the top line is in large part due to the talented defensive duo of Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. These two, for a lack of better words, utterly dominated the first line all series long, especially in the case of Crosby and Guentzel. They each tallied a goal and an assist throughout the entirety of the series, as well as a combined minus-8.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this core still has a few years left in the tank with regards to contending for the Stanley Cup. Quite frankly, this is the one area of the team I would leave untouched in the offseason, aside from a few league-minimum signings in the event of injuries. The Penguins will likely lose one member of this stacked offensive lineup to the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, which happens on July 21.
In a year that has no doubt been different and challenging for everybody, the result for the Penguins in the playoffs continues to be the same as years’ past: a first-round exit. With the Cup window dwindling and a rebuild looming on the horizon for Crosby and the Penguins in the coming years, I have no doubt that general manager Ron Hextall will do everything in his power to acquire more talent that will help push the Penguins over the edge and, if all goes well, notch a sixth Stanley Cup into the Penguins’ history.