There’s no need to panic if you’re the Pittsburgh Penguins right now – frankly, I’m not sure you ever need to panic when you have two of the best centers in the world on your roster – but let’s confront some numbers.
After getting blown out of the water 7-1 by the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday night, the Penguins have now lost three games in the first month of the season by five goals or more. There was also the 10-1 shellacking by Chicago in the second game of the campaign and the 7-1 debacle against Tampa Bay a couple weeks later.
Now, teams get blown out sometimes. But Stanley Cup-winning teams usually do not get grinded into paste that often. In fact, it only happened to Pittsburgh twice last year in 82 games. The year before that? It did not happen at all. When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in 2015, they didn’t have a single five-goal loss. The champion Los Angeles Kings of 2014 had one such setback (a 5-0 loss to St. Louis). And the victorious Blackhawks of the year before that didn’t have a bad loss during the lockout-shortened campaign.
For the current edition of the Penguins to have three in a month is, well, disturbing.
Against the Jets on Sunday, Pittsburgh was missing two key defensemen in Justin Schultz and Matt Hunwick. If you’re looking for justifications, you could assert that a healthy blueline would have made a difference. But that would only fix Zach Trotman’s gaffes; not the mistakes made by Kris Letang in the game.
And hey – usually Matt Murray is a pretty reliable goaltender (a two-time Cup champ, naturally). But would Marc-Andre Fleury have been a nice second option instead of rookie Casey DeSmith? We already know that Antti Niemi wasn’t the answer, since two of the blowouts were on him.
I guess what I’m getting at is that you can use the same examples as either excuses or symptoms. Maybe it’s just a weird coincidence that a team with some of the most high-end players in the game can sometimes lay an egg, but maybe it’s a warning beacon that two straight seasons of long, satisfying championship hockey have brought an undertow to the Three Rivers.
Which is completely understandable. The Penguins have played a ton of hockey over the past two-plus seasons and several of their key members also suited up in the World Cup of Hockey last summer. They also had to make personnel moves that were entirely salary cap- or expansion draft-related.
But let’s not bury them just yet. The mission for GM Jim Rutherford now is to look at his organization’s scant depth and lack of cap space and somehow churn out an answer.
I didn’t say it was a fun mission.
While defense is an obvious concern – only the Arizona Coyotes are giving up more goals per game – the offense hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire either, ranking just 22nd in the league. Perhaps you bring up Daniel Sprong, the leading scorer for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, one of the AHL’s top teams right now.
Both Hunwick and Schultz have concussions and if they return soon, then crisis averted – for now. Ideally, the Penguins would pick up another blueliner before the deadline, or have someone in the organization step up to a degree.
Or perhaps Rutherford just lets the chips fall where they may. After all, as long as the Penguins get into the playoffs, they only need one healthy goaltender – and Murray is really good. Letang is struggling early on, but he missed a ton of hockey last year and we could all forgive him for being rusty so far. And if Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin need to take over a game or a series, we know they can do it.
But if you ever wondered how hard it was to keep a championship-caliber team at that level in the salary cap era, take a look at the Penguins right now.