The Penguins don’t have a problem this season — they have problems, plural, and every time they think they have one figured out, another one pops up.
They’re obviously getting inconsistent scoring throughout the lineup. Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Carl Hagelin are all having down offensive seasons vs. 2016-17. As mentioned here, their even-strength scoring is down overall, and the Penguins have too often looked like a team with a lot of miles on its tires from the past two Stanley Cup championship runs.
But if there’s one number that really sticks out about the Penguins this season, it’s their record in one-goal games. First, it’s the fact that they’ve played a lot of them in a season that has seen its share of large margins of victories. More than half of Pittsburgh’s games — 17 out of 32 this season — have been decided by one goal. Last season, only 22 of its 82 games were one-goal games.
Last season, the Penguins won 19 of their one-goal games and only lost three. This season? They’ve won 10 and lost seven — the most losses in games decided by one goal in the NHL. That doesn’t include three overtime losses, which are obviously also by a one-goal margin.
Their offensive woes are part of these struggles in close games, but there’s another significant change from last season on the defensive side: The Penguins have gone from a .914 team save percentage to an .896 this season. It’s no secret that Pittsburgh has gotten substandard goaltending from its backup netminders in 2017 — it was swell, Antti Niemi — but starter Matt Murray has been no great shakes either, with a very ordinary .910 EV save percentage, down from .932 last season.
The Penguins hope that Murray will bounce back now that he’s off injured reserve, and the Penguins can start picking up wins in the closely decided games.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Score more goals at even strength! That’s a panacea for any ailing team, but the Penguins’ 5-on-5 production doesn’t resemble what we’re used to from the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs. As of Tuesday, the Penguins had 45 goals at even strength. Where does that rank in the league? A measly 29th. Only the San Jose Sharks and Buffalo Sabres are worse. Pittsburgh has also allowed 103 goals at even strength, which is tied for the second-worst mark in the league. The Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers join Pittsburgh in the cellar. So what gives?
Slow starts also plagued the Pens early in the season and haven’t improved much since. Bottom-six depth has been a concern for this team since it parted ways with veterans Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. Preseason darling Greg McKegg just couldn’t keep up and landed on the waiver wire last week.
When I watch Pittsburgh, I see a team that looks tired. Maybe the past few seasons are finally taking a toll. How can this be fixed, Penguins fans might ask? An injection of energy — perhaps via a trade — can’t hurt. Offer this roster some fresh legs. Remain hopeful that 23-year-old Dominik Simon can sustain some of the excitement he brought while playing top-line minutes with Sidney Crosby this week. And score early and often on 5-on-5. For as much as the Penguins haven’t looked like themselves early on, and as wild as it is to see them fifth in the division, they’re still in the hunt.
Chris Peters, NHL Insider: I think the Penguins could potentially benefit from a trade, particularly to bring in some scoring depth to make their bottom six more of a threat. Pittsburgh has somewhat limited assets to make such a trade, however. Ian Cole seems like the obvious candidate based on the reports and rumors about him, but I feel like that might plug one hole by creating another in the defensive-depth department. I do potentially like the idea of fresh blood coming in — players who are hungry for an opportunity. Pittsburgh had been able to do that internally with Bryan Rust, Sheary and Murray two years ago, and Guentzel last year. It would be awfully hard for Simon to move the needle as much as those guys did, hence the need for [Penguins GM Jim] Rutherford to look externally.
Then again, I think the Pens still have enough talent on the roster to get out of the funk. It just may take a little more creativity. Staying the course may be an uninteresting option, but Pittsburgh has the worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league right now. It’s hard to expect that to continue. It may not be as easy as snapping one’s fingers so that the goals magically start dropping, but it’s easier to expect things to change when you have this particular roster. Also, if they’re really trying to get that ol’ shooting percentage up, just keep passing the puck to Phil Kessel. The Thrill is on fire right now, with seven goals in his past nine games, and is on a career-best goal-scoring pace.
Finally, now that Murray is back, the Pens have to figure out the right workload for him. With Tristan Jarry showing that he might be ready to take on a few more starts, they can take some of the burden off of their young No. 1 goalie. The amount of hockey this team has played, coming off of back-to-back Cup seasons, undoubtedly puts a strain on the whole team, but especially on Murray, who was essentially thrust into the role while he was still figuring out how to be a goalie in the NHL (and that’s not just about stopping pucks and playing games). He has a pair of Stanley Cups to show he passed the test, but this is still his first full year as The Guy. Keeping him healthy and as fresh as possible should be a priority going forward, especially if the team keeps struggling to score.