The Pittsburgh Penguins might be 14-8-2, but their flaws are being masked by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. His statistics might have faltered in recent weeks, but he’s been phenomenal regardless. Fleury is currently third in the NHL with 12 wins, fifth in save percentage with a .929 and 11th with a 2.16 goals against average.
However, he’s doing this while facing the fifth most shots and seventh most shot attempts. It’s a miracle that he’s performed so well under such intense fire almost every single night. But why is Fleury facing so many shots?
The Penguins top defensive pairing has been and it will continue to be awful. Kris Letang was given a massive contract, in accordance with his point production, but he’s faltering as the team’s top defender. While playing alongside Paul Martin, Letang was at his best and it’s no coincidence that when Martin leaves, he has struggled.
In 408:47 of ice time, Letang has a neutral corsi for of 50.1% and has been on the ice for .73 goals for per-sixty played and has allowed 2.64 goals against per-sixty. Last night against the San Jose Sharks was one of the worst performances by Letang the Penguins have ever seen. In terms of shot attempts while on the ice, Letang’s differential was -29 and his defensive partner Rob Scuderi was -23. The Penguins as a whole attempted 36 shots and allowed 61 attempts on Fleury.
It’s not a recipe for success and there is not a solution in sight. Letang began the season playing with Ian Cole, together they netted a corsi for of 45.7%, scored .48 goals per-sixty and allowed 2.88 goals per-sixty.
This horrific pairing was eventually separated and Letang was given a chance with the young and talented Olli Maatta. The duo performed as a top pairing should, they had a corsi for of 54.2%, scored 2.46 goals for per-sixty and only allowed 1.23. However, Maatta suffered an injury which has kept him out for weeks and he’s only recently began skating again.
All players including Olli Maatta are present at today's skate. We're getting ready for a late night in San Jose!
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 1, 2015
While alongside Scuderi, the duo has a corsi for of 59% which might sound great, but take a look at the goal differential. When Scuderi and Letang are on the ice, the Penguins have not scored a single goal and they allow 3.0 goals against per-sixty.
Advanced analytics tell us a lot about hockey, but there are not an all inclusive statistics and despite what some may say, goal differential is extremely important. Corsi for percentages can be manipulated and altered by the forwards playing in front of them, goal differential cannot. It does not matter if you fire 25 shots on the opposing net, but if the five shots you let up are of great quality the point is moot.
The Penguins have one defensive pairing that can actually act as their top pairing and it’s Letang and Maatta. Both players have significant injury histories and it’s a stretch to assume they will remain healthy for the rest of the season. No other defender on the Penguins roster has found a way to play well with Letang.
Pittsburgh should be shopping for a legitimate top-four defender. For the first time in a long while, they have an abundance of talented wings, but they need to be careful. The Penguins will be dealing from a position of weakness when addressing their defensive woes and other teams know that. They need to bring in another defender because Scuderi cannot stay on the top pairing. I’d even argue that he shouldn’t be in the lineup, but instead he’s being used on the top pairing and they’re floundering.