Good morning, everyone.
Ready for the unofficial second half of the hockey season? Of course you are. But are the Penguins? That’s a pretty good question, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Let’s take a look at the 10 biggest issues facing a Penguins team that might be the X-factor of the Eastern Conference playoff picture come April.
- Sidney Crosby’s production
Crosby is averaging 1.19 points per game, which is a Hall of Fame number. It’s also the worst point per game average of his career and, in fact, Crosby’s points per game have declined in each of the past three seasons. His current mark of 0.41 goals per game is also a career low.
So, why are Crosby’s numbers so low? There are many theories, including the belief many hold that Crosby’s wrist remains injured. He does appear to tape his wrist more than in previous seasons, though I believe that to be a precautionary move. Is the wrist 100 percent? Probably not. It was seriously bothering him in the playoffs, according to numerous sources. But I have the privilege of watching him practice every day, and the way he fires the puck in practice leads me to believe that, if indeed his wrist is banged up, it isn’t horribly damaging his ability to shoot the puck.
I’d suggest that Crosby’s numbers are down because he has never played on a team that receives so few power plays every game. The numbers are way, way down. That hurts all great offensive players.
That said, Crosby needs to be better. Much better. He’s looked more himself since the turn of the New Year, especially in his willingness to work down low. His skating has been magnificent in recent games and I don’t believe his current injury is anything real serious.
The Penguins need to generate more power plays and, frankly, Crosby needs to perform better with the man advantage. He’s been a turnover machine at times on the power play, and this needs to stop.
Crosby hasn’t been bad. I still would pick him to win the scoring title, health permitting. But he needs to improve for the Penguins to make a legitimate Stanley Cup run.
- Who is the No. 4 defenseman?
This is a big, big deal. It seems the Penguins have three legitimate top-four options every season, and now, because of an injury to Olli Maatta that potentially could cripple the Penguins, the same situation is becoming evident.
Kris Letang, who won’t be out long with his current injury, is playing the best hockey of his career. He has become a true No. 1 defenseman. Paul Martin has been a little inconsistent this season, but when he’s with Letang, he’s terrific. Those two absolutely click and should not be separated.
Christian Ehrhoff has been an excellent addition. I didn’t particularly like his game in October, but since the beginning of November, he’s been wonderful. More offense will come, his defensive work is sound and Ehrhoff’s efficient, economic ability to make proper decisions with the puck has been a very big deal.
But here’s the bigger deal: Who plays with Ehrhoff the remainder of the season? I see the candidates as Simon Despres, Derrick Pouliot and Robert Bortuzzo. And frankly, Despres seems unlikely. The Penguins really like Despres with Rob Scuderi – I know, I know, most of you aren’t Scuderi fans – and I don’t see that pairing being split. In general, it has been a perfectly reasonable No. 3 pairing, so we’ll assume it sticks.
That leaves Pouliot and Bortuzzo as candidates. Bortuzzo provides some muscle and has played relatively well in short stints with Ehrhoff. But is Bortuzzo a top-four defenseman? I don’t see it. I like him as a No.6 guy, but not seeing more than 20 minutes per game.
Is Pouliot a top-four guy? Well, we know he will be. His talent is special as you saw in a tremendous performance against the Blackhawks last week. He will give the Penguins instant offense and can run the power play at any time. But is his defensive work ready for postseason hockey, especially in a top-four role? That’s a lot to ask of a kid. I love Pouliot’s game and, in fact, I think the Penguins would be wise to give him a 10-game look with Ehrhoff right now to see how they do. I won’t discount Pouliot’s ability to stick and he should be given a look.
But if the Penguins could use anything right now, it’s probably a top-four guy to play with Ehrhoff. Unfortunately, those guys don’t grow on trees and the salary cap remains a big problem.
- How will games be officiated?
If you were to privately ask the Penguins how they feel about the work of NHL officials this season, the answers from some players wouldn’t be fit for publication. They are absolutely livid.
And when you look at their special teams numbers, you’ll understand why this is a significant issue. One could make a sound argument that the Penguins are the finest NHL team in the area of special teams. Their power play ranks No. 6 in the NHL, this despite an almost unbelievable slump for more than a month. Think about that.
Meanwhile, their penalty killing unit ranks No. 3 in the NHL, which is no fluke. It’s almost always that good.
When games are called in a tight manner, it benefits the Penguins. When the refs “let the boys play,” things will quickly turn against them. The Penguins are only a slightly above average five-on-five team and likely aren’t capable of winning a Stanley Cup without receiving a positive impact from their special teams. You can’t realistically do that when penalties are being called.
The Penguins always are among the league leaders in yapping at refs. But it feels different this season. There is a lot of anger about how games are being called. It’s worth keeping an eye on.
- Getting healthy
This is stating the obvious, I realize. But it needs to be mentioned. This has been a remarkably unhealthy team for quite some time now. The Penguins are No. 6 in man games lost after finishing No. 1 last season.
Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Letang, Patric Hornqvist, Blake Comeau and others are currently banged up. Unhealthy teams do not win Stanley Cups.
The Penguins are banged up and have been for a while. Will this change anytime soon? Their postseason chances will hinge on it. There’s no way around this.
- Will the bottom-six start to score?
I’m on record as saying Crosby and Malkin need to be dominant players in the postseason for the Penguins to have a chance at sniffing the Stanley Cup. That said, they sure could use some help. The fourth line has produced almost no offense. The third line has displayed flashes – if Brandon Sutter, Beau Bennett and Steve Downie play together, there is potential there – but really hasn’t provided any semblance of consistent offense.
All four lines need to score in the playoffs. In 2009, the likes of Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and even Craig Adams scored memorable goals. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if Jim Rutherford made a move to help the bottom-six. Whether he does or not, this group needs to score more.
- Simon Despres…
He’s been so good most of the season, but lately, not so much. I don’t believe he has been 100 percent. But still, there has been a noticeable decline in his recent play, particularly his work in one-on-one situations. Those who defend him will say “he’s being held back playing with Scuderi,” but I don’t really buy that.
The fact is, Despres was outstanding the first two months of the season and hasn’t been awful since, but has been average at best.
Despres needs to be better than average for the Penguins to thrive in the playoffs, no matter his pairing. In general, this season has been a huge success for him. But as always, he needs to provide more consistency each game.
- Start spreadin’ the news
The Penguins have a big, big problem. One plays in Manhattan, the other on Long Island.
I didn’t find anything about what the Islanders and Rangers did to the Penguins this season fluky. Did you?
The Rangers outplayed the Penguins badly in three of four meetings and have won six of seven in the rivalry. They are in the Penguins’ heads, this I’m sure of. They’re a deeper team. Not a more talented team, but certainly a deeper one.
The Islanders? They’re just good. Really, really good, and the Penguins don’t appear to have an answer for their forwards.
John Tavares and his mates come to town on April 10. Maybe the division will be decided by then, maybe not. And maybe the Penguins need to beat them that night, no matter what the standings say.
- Does Fleury have another gear?
Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury has been magnificent this season. Yes, he deserves to have his name in Vezina talk. Yes, he keeps getting better under goaltender coach Mike Bales.
But can he steal a series against the Islanders or Rangers? That might have to happen for the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, or even for them to get into contention.
When is the last time Fleury stole a series? Detroit in 2009, perhaps?
I’m not saying he isn’t capable. In fact, I suspect that he is. But we haven’t seen it in quite some time. Fleury clearly has emerged as one of hockey’s finest goaltenders this season, and he’ll be good in the playoffs. No question. But can he be better than good? His play against the Rangers and Islanders this season is a concern.
- Does GMJR have any bullets left?
Jim Rutherford has done a fine job dating back to last summer. Almost all of his moves have been correct, notably a wonderful job in acquiring David Perron.
Now, the salary cap and lack of forward depth is Rutherford’s enemy.
The Penguins could really use a big-time bottom-six forward. They could use a No. 4 defenseman, too. In a perfect world of luxury, they could use one more top-six forward, even though that seems wildly unlikely at this point.
The Penguins are right up against the salary cap. Any significant move they make will see them deal a player already on their NHL roster.
- All eyes on you, Mike Johnston
A significant portion of the Penguins fan base will tell with you certainty that Dan Bylsma is the reason the Penguins struggled during the past few postseasons.
Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. It’s a tough thing to gauge, you know?
But this must mean the head coach is important. I’ve been completely impressed with almost everything Mike Johnston has done. He’s good. Really good. He’s got a beautiful hockey mind and just has an easy going way about him.
But the playoffs change everything. How will he handle the playoffs? Will he push the right buttons? Will he figure out a team that has been mentally soft in recent years?
Enjoy the second half, everyone. It should be interesting.