The Glass Eye: The State of the Penguins

Last week, the Eye took a look at how the NHL standings look after two months of play, and made some predictions about the rest of the season. Today we will focus in on the Penguins – strengths, weaknesses, moves they should make, and predictions for the rest of the season.

As of Thursday December 12 the Penguins stand at 21-10-1 (43 points), seven points ahead of Washington for the division lead.  They have outscored their opponents by 27 goals (3rd-best in the league). They are sixth in goals scored per game, fifth in goals allowed, first in power-play% and second in penalty kill%. In short, through 32 of 82 games the Pens have been a remarkably balanced team – they have scored enough goals, they have been sound defensively, and they have the best power play/penalty kill teams in the league.

STRENGTHS:

Top-six scoring: The Pens’ top-six forwards can match up with just about anyone, and that’s even with Pascal Dupuis off to a disappointing start (four goals, 15 points) despite playing on Crosby’s line. Sidney Crosby leads the league in points with 43, and Evgeni Malkin is in third place with 38. Chris Kunitz’ 17 goals rank him fourth in the league, and James Neal has 10 goals and 20 points despite only playing 16 games due to injury and suspension. The top two lines offer an enviable combination of speed, skill, size, and shooting accuracy that I believe no other team can match – certainly no other team in the Eastern Conference.

Defensive depth: I’ll admit; I was concerned about this area heading into the season. On paper the Pens’ top-six defensemen looked solid (Letang, Orpik, Scuderi, Martin, Niskanen, Engelland), but I was unsure how the team would handle any injuries. Well, three of those players – and the top three defensively, to boot, in Orpik, Scuderi, and Martin – are all injured at the moment, yet the Penguins have not missed a beat due to the impressive work from their young blueliners.

Olli Maata has been the most impressive – he impressed enough to make the team on a tryout basis at age 19, and while he has not been spectacular, he almost always has made the correct decisions and does not seem to wilt under pressure. He has concentrated on being defensively sound, but there have been flashes of offensive brilliance as well – and with a little more development and confidence, Matta has a GREAT future ahead of him.

Simon Despres was scheduled to be a fixture in Pittsburgh, but a disappointing training camp led to his demotion to Wilkes-Barre and a renewed emphasis on defensive play as opposed to offensive rushes. Since his recall two weeks ago, I believe Despres has been the Pens’ best defenseman – he has been steady yet aggressive with the body, and has made many subtle plays to set up goals. Robert Bortuzzo is a huge, physical defenseman who doesn’t seem to be in favor with the coaching staff, but who plays a solid, smart game when he gets a chance.

When the blueline is fully healthy, there will be a serious glut of players capable of playing at the NHL level. Look for at least one of these players to be trade bait later in the season (more on that later).

Special teams: The power play speaks for itself – a 26% conversion rate is spectacular, and the Pens’ puck movement on the power play has been a sight to behold, especially over the last month. What impresses me more, however, is the penalty kill – despite playing a much tougher schedule over the past 20 games, the Pens have allowed only FOUR power play goals over that span – for a 20-game kill percentage of 92.8%! They have become masters of staying disciplined, taking away shooting lanes, and protecting their goalies. Now, 93% is unsustainable, they will allow more power play goals, but the team also has yet to record a shorthanded goal – look for that to change within the next couple weeks as well.

Marc-Andre Fleury: No one, and I mean NO ONE was under more scrutiny going into this season than the Pens’ top goaltender…two consecutive playoff meltdowns will have that effect. And let’s face it, if he melts down again in the playoffs, none of this will really matter…but the simple fact is, Fleury has been nothing short of great thus far. He’s 17-8-1, with a 2.01 goals-against average…and more importantly, a very good .922 save percentage.  He leads the league in wins and shutouts (3) and is top-five in goals against. He has allowed two goals or less in 18 of his 27 starts, and allowed 4+ only three times. He’s been everything a team could ask for in a #1 goalie, and if he can maintain this level of performance into the postseason the Pens will have a great shot at the Cup (of course, that’s the biggest ‘if’ on the team…time will tell). For now, the Fleury critics have to hold their tongues, because the man has given them precious little material to use against him.

WEAKNESSES

Third line: As good as the top two lines have been, the third line has been a disaster most of the season. After the top six forwards, third-line center Brandon Sutter has five goals and 11 points in 32 games…and no other forward has more than seven points or three goals. Even allowing for the high ice times for the top-six forwards, those are PALTRY numbers and will have to be addressed at some point if this team is to win a Cup – top teams have much more production from the third line than Pittsburgh has been getting. Sutter really hasn’t been the problem – he’s a solid penalty killer and defender, and he’s scored a few big goals – but his wingers have just not gotten the job done. The fourth line has actually out-produced the third line much of the season, and that’s never a good sign.

Even-strength scoring: Pittsburgh has dominated on special teams, outscoring opponents 29-12. At even strength, however, the Pens have only outscored opponents 62-56, which is middle of the pack in the NHL. This largely relates to the bottom-six problems discussed above – during long periods of 5-on-5 play, the Crosby and Malkin lines are only on the ice 55-65% of the time – and the bottom two lines have not really generated anything of note.   

Backup goaltending: This looked to be a team strength – until Tomas Vokoun suffered a career-threatening blood clot in his leg during preseason. Jeff Zatkoff has been competent, but if you watch him closely it becomes apparent that he is not capable of being ‘the guy’ at the NHL level. His lateral movement is below-average and he does not recover well after the initial shot. As a little-used backup this is not a big concern now – but there’s absolutely NO WAY management can go into the playoffs without an experienced backup, not with Fleury’s recent history. Vokoun MIGHT be back by then, but if he’s not – or if he simply isn’t up to par when he does return – this roster spot should be the top priority for an upgrade in February or March.

OUTLOOK/PREDICTIONS

As I said in last week’s column, the regular season is just short of meaningless for Pittsburgh – with their talent, and hence their expectations, playoff appearances are not just expected…they are demanded. The Metropolitan division has been terrible thus far, and unless there’s a rash of injuries to Crosby and Malkin (or an in-season implosion by Fleury), this team should cruise to a division title.

Having said that, the third line and backup goaltending positions need an upgrade, and the obvious position to deal talent from is on defense. The top two trade candidates at the NHL level are probably Robert Bortuzzo and Brooks Orpik. Bortuzzo  seems to be the ‘odd man out’ anytime there are more than six healthy defenseman, but other teams would likely covet a 6’4” defenseman with a physical edge to his game. Orpik is a harder call – he’s in many ways the heart and soul of the team, but he’s also a pending free agent, he’s 33, and frankly I’ve seen some slippage in his game the past two years. There are also several defensive prospects in the farm system that could be traded. For the record I think Maata is untouchable, and I’d consider Despres close to untouchable as well – I’ve always liked his raw skills, and I’m seeing signs that he could be a bigger, nastier, more offensively-minded version of Brooks Orpik with time.

Acquiring an upgrade to the third line should not be that challenging – we’re not talking about a 25-goal scorer or even a 20 goal scorer, more like a 15-20 goal scorer with some grit. Not a fighter, but someone not afraid to be physical and get under opponents’ skin. As more teams fall out of contention, there should be several of those players available. I’d love to see Chris Neil of Ottawa in the black and gold, or Nashville’s Mike Fisher.

The backup goalie position is more problematic – experienced netminders who can still play at a reasonably high level, and are available for trade, are few and far between. The obvious candidate will be Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, but I’d pass – he has a high salary, he will command a lot of value in a trade, and his high profile (US Olympic star) may put too much pressure on Fleury. An ideal candidate would be Martin Brodeur, but I doubt New Jersey would trade him within the division, and I also question whether he’d leave the only team he’s known. My pick is Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson. He’s 33, he’s being phased out there in favor of prospect Robin Lehner, and while he’s nowhere near as good as last season’s stats would suggest, he’s also a lot better than he’s shown this season (3.40 GAA, .895 sv%). He could be an ideal backup to Fleury, and Ottawa will be looking to make moves as I believe they will be well out of the playoff race by late January.

In any case, the Pens team you see on the ice the next six weeks will be significantly different ‘at the margins’ when the playoffs roll around – but as long as Crosby and Malkin are healthy, the Pens ALWAYS will have a chance to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. 

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

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