From Depth to Goaltending, Penguins Off to a Wobbly Start

by | Oct 29, 2023

From Depth to Goaltending, Penguins Off to a Wobbly Start

by | Oct 29, 2023

It’s something of a cliché to say a pro sports team is searching for its identity. Through the first month of the regular season, though, it’s hard to describe the 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins any other way.

With a 3-5 record through eight games, they’re 28th of 32 NHL teams. The wins have been decisive – a 4-0 shutout and 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals and Calgary Flames in a single weekend, and an impressive, 4-0 blanking of the Colorado Avalanche.

Then there are the five losses, in which they’ve been outscored 23-10; struggled with depth scoring; shown disinterest in matching their opponents’ battle level, especially when it comes to high-traffic areas; and have the makings of a goalie problem with a player to whom they’ve committed $5.375M for the next five years on a virtually unmovable contract.

A season that started with so much goodwill, with new GM Kyle Dubas bringing a fresh approach, significant roster changes and reigning Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson, is not off to the start the Penguins hoped.

Among the most glaring problems for a team built on its offensive credentials is a league-30th power play, converting at just 10% and currently 0 for its last 16. They’ve also managed to earn just 20 chances on the man-advantage, second worst in the NHL.

“When you look at the underlying numbers, they’re one of the top groups in the league, if you believe advanced analytics,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “They’re generating chances; if they weren’t, that would be a different conversation, but they are. The puck hasn’t gone in the net for them. That’s an important aspect of it, without a doubt.

“We’ve got to try to keep our swagger; we’ve got to simplify our game. We’ve got to make it hard at the net front; I think if we do that, pucks will go in the net.”

Then there’s Jarry, who played much of last season injured and still needs to establish himself as a reliable No. 1 for a club that’s invested in him not only as a cornerstone of their franchise, but as a critical piece of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang’s chances of competing for another Stanley Cup.

To this point, though, Jarry has been all or nothing. He has two wins – both shutouts – and four losses, including Saturday when he was pulled after allowing three goals on just nine shots.

“I thought Ottawa was very opportunistic; the chances they got, they finished on,” Sullivan said, deflecting the question of Jarry’s performance as diplomatically as possible. “It’s not an easy one right after the game to digest the goaltender performance; for me, it’s more about a collective effort.”

Then there’s the top-heavy lineup. On the top two lines, Jake Guentzel (2G, 7A, 9P), Sidney Crosby (5G, 4A, 9P), Bryan Rust (5G, 2A, 7P), newcomer Reilly Smith (4G, 2A, 6P) and Evgeni Malkin (4G, 5P, 9P) are predictably pulling their weight. After that, things get dicey.

Rickard Rakell, Malkin’s right wing – in year two of a six-year, $30M deal – is off to a slow start with just one assist. On the third line, newcomer Lars Eller (1G, 2A, 3P) leads the way, with left wing Drew O’Connor contributing just one assist in eight games; recently recalled Radim Zohorna has contributed a more promising two points (1G, 1A) in just four games. The bottom line of newbies Matt Nieto and Noel Acciari and oldie Jeff Carter? Goose eggs across the board.

To Sullivan’s point, the Penguins are generating chances, and they’re putting shots on goal – their 281 through eight games is No. 2 in the NHL. They’re connecting just 8.2% of the time, though, which is in the bottom third of the league.

They might not be giving up as many chances as the eye test would have you believe, either. Their 232 shots against rank No. 20 of the league’s 32 teams, but their combined save percentage of .892 among Jarry (.901), backup Alex Nedeljkovic, currently on IR (.914) and Magnus Hellberg (.882) just isn’t good enough. Of goalies who have played four or more games this season, Jarry’s save percentage ranks No. 28.

How different might Saturday’s 5-2 home loss have gone if a team that came out outshooting the Senators 22-7 in the first period, eager to build on their big win Thursday over the Avalanche, had gotten gotten the big save from their starting netminder?

The Penguins remained optimistic in their ability to turn things around, starting with a quick turnaround Monday when they host the Anaheim Ducks.

“I don’t think we helped ourselves; I think we slowed the game down in the third,” Sullivan said. “I thought we could’ve played a little bit quicker through the neutral zone; that would’ve given us an opportunity to establish the game that we had established in the first period. We played into their hands by slowing the game down; that’s an area I think we can get better at with a heightened awareness.”

“That’s part of the game sometimes,” said Hellberg, who saw his first action as a Penguin Saturday in relief of Jarry. “We came in after the first period with a lot of confidence; we knew we were the better team in the first period, even if the score didn’t say that. Obviously not the result we wanted, but I think if we play like we did part of this game, we’re going to win a lot of hockey games.”

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