The 2017-18 campaign ended in disappointment for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not only did they fall short of the coveted Stanley Cup three-peat, but they lost to the Washington Capitals in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a postseason team they have dominated over the past several years. Now, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford must focus on improving his franchise this summer with the hope of making another run at the title.
Penguins Live and Die on the Offensive End
During the 2017-18 season, the Penguins ranked fourth in offense, finishing with the fourth-highest scoring output in the league with 272 goals. When the final horn sounded in Game 6 of the second round, Jake Guentzel and Crosby led the postseason scoring race.
In 12 games, they each had 21 points while combining for a plus-17. Pittsburgh torched the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, defeating them in six games, but even more impressively they outscored them 28-15. The Pens averaged nearly five goals per game and looked like the team to beat in the East.
The second round against the Caps was the opposite. For the first time in nearly three seasons, the Pens were outscored by their opponent and lost a playoff series for the first time since 2015. Crosby and Guentzel continued their hot hands, but a lack of secondary scoring and a lower-body injury that kept Evgeni Malkin sidelined for the first two games took its toll. One could easily chalk this series loss up to a lack of firepower from the offense, but realistically, Pittsburgh failed to defend their zone and make key saves like they have consistently done over the past two seasons.
The Pens do not have any major contracts expiring this offseason and the majority of their offensive players are likely to return. With that being said, Rutherford must refocus his attention on the other side of the puck and bring in a defenseman who can shut down opposing teams’ top units, but also one who can chip in offensively as well.
Penguins Must Target Erik Karlsson
The Penguins were one of the most inconsistent playoff teams in the 2018 field. They ranked 4th in total offense but 23rd in total defense. Kris Letang finished the regular season with 51 points, the third-highest output of his career, but was a minus-9. Generally, players who finish with a negative plus/minus rating tend to fall on non-playoff rosters, but Letang and the other top-six defenseman on the team all finished on the wrong side of zero, with the exception of Justin Schultz (plus-22).
Letang logged 4:43 more minutes than the next closest defenseman, Brian Dumoulin. Clearly, the Birds relied too heavily on one player and it affected his play. Over-playing your top defenseman can have its upside, but consistently pushing his limits through the course of an 82-game season and into the playoffs will likely hinder his ability to perform. This gap in ice time should be heavily on the radar of the Pens’ front office this summer.
Rutherford should make a bid for Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson this offseason. Trade rumors about the elite defenseman fell through ahead of the 2018 February deadline and it’s evident that the Norris Trophy winner possibly wants out the nation’s capital. Pittsburgh must at least try to acquire this once-in-a-generation talent as he could contribute on both ends of the ice.
The Pens would have to wheel and deal to pull this blockbuster off, but they could dish Schultz and a first-round pick or even an offensive player like Patric Hornqvist to the Sens in return for the Swedish superstar. Whatever the trade would entail, Rutherford must be willing to do whatever he can to add Karlsson or another All-Star to the blue line heading into 2018-19.
Adding Goaltending Depth
Given Matt Murray’s injury history over the course of his three-year career, the Pens must bring in a solid backup this fall. More and more NHL teams are relying on proven talent to help give their starters a rest and prevent injuries and Pittsburgh must hop on this train as well. Murray has not played more than 49 games during the regular season in back-to-back years due to significant injuries. He has also missed time in the previous two postseasons from injuries, with the exception of 2018.
His 2018 season was plagued with injuries, the death of his father, and poor performances between the pipes during the series with Washington. Murray finished 2018 with a career-worst in save percentage (.907) and goals-against average (2.92). In the second round he recorded a .902 SV% and a 2.66 GAA.
In the 2017 offseason, Marc-Andre Fleury was selected by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Not only did this get rid of Pittsburgh’s back-up in the crease, but it limited their ability to rest Murray and provide a solid second option after both his leave of absence and concussion. The 2016 and 2017 Pens were able to hoist the Cup due to impressive goaltending performances in all four rounds, including Fleury’s dominance in the first two rounds in 2017, but in 2018, injuries caught up to their 24-year-old starter and hindered his overall performance in the playoffs.
There is no doubt that when healthy Murray is one of the best goaltenders in the league. Adding a viable backup for him would not only lengthen his season, but it would give him ample amounts of rest while also providing Pittsburgh with a sense of security.
Although Braden Holtby was statistically one of the most dominant goaltenders in playoff history heading into 2017, the Caps went with Philipp Grubauer to start Game 1 in 2018, as he was the proven goalie during the regular season. Even though it did not last long, Grubauer was able to help Holtby rest during the regular season, which is what allowed him to get over the hump and push Washington into the Stanley Cup Final. After losing Fleury, and seeing Murray sustain injury after injury, this is definitely something that should be at the top of the list for the Pens’ organization.
The 2018 season may have ended in failure but the Penguins’ All-Star talent is still in its prime. Adding an elite defenseman along with a solid goaltender to back up Murray would not only allow for the Pens to compete next season, but it would boost their roster significantly. Pittsburgh will be back and they will be hungry in 2019, especially after watching another team snatch the Stanley Cup right out from underneath them for the first time in three years.
Former Division 1 hockey player at Colgate University. Covering the New York Rangers for THW and isportsweb.com.