Pittsburgh Penguins: Goaltending Among Early Season Worries One Week In
|Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette|
We are now a week into the season, and while the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to dig themselves out of the 0-2 hole with back-to-back wins over the Washington Capitals, there is much work to be done.
With the season being more on the sprinting side as opposed to a marathon, every game is magnified, and each point means that much more. Teams just don’t have the space to fall behind in the standings or they risk missing out on the playoffs.
So it would be easy to panic with the slow button start the Penguins have gone through. They were throughly embarrassed but he Philadelphia Flyers in the first two games, and had to fight and claw in the next set against the Capitals, climbing out of first period deficits to earn the victories in extra time (shootout in the first, overtime for the second).
It’d be even easier to hit the panic button when rewinding back and watching the games over again.
The players that the Penguins have to rely on to produce, have yet to do so, the goaltending hasn’t been there and injuries are already set to test their depth on the blue line.
While I’m not going to panic (it’s ok if you are), there are certainly things to be concerned about four games in that if not corrected - especially in a shortened season - could put the Penguins in a tough situation in the standings.
Defensive Play, Depth Concerns
The Penguins retooled the bottom of their defensive depth chart this offseason, bringing in Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci to compete with Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola for playing time.
While Matheson started the season playing with John Marino, Head Coach Mike Sullivan quickly went away from that pairing, reuniting the latter with Marcus Pettersson. The pair remained together until Pettersson was injured on a hit by Capitals’ forward T.J. Oshie.
The Pettersson/Marino pairing were looking to build off a strong previous year where they established themselves as legitimate up-and-coming top-four defenders - both have signed contract extensions in the past year - but that has been far from case this season.
As you can see, Marino’s lackadaisical approach led to the turnover that would eventually lead to the goal that put the Penguins behind, and that’s just the start of things.
Playing together for 32:28 worth of ice-time at 5v5, Pettersson and Marino has pushed play in a positive direction (54.76 Corsi-For%) despite only 44.44% of their shifts having started in the offensive zone. They have an ever-so slightly positive expected goal share (50.04%), but 75% of the actual goals scored while the pair as been on the ice has been by the opposition.
The top pairing of Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang have faired slightly better than the second pairing. Their puck possession (56.25 CF%) is among the top-20 of all defensive pairs who have played at least 20 minutes together at 5v5. They also have a better expected goal rate than Pettersson and Marino, but also have seen the puck end in the back of the net on the wrong side off the ice far too often - a 33.33 GF%.
Now with not only just Pettersson potentially out, the Penguins were also without Riikola, who also left the game against the Capitals with an injury after just playing eight minutes.
Ceci, who hasn’t played since the opener, could be the next man up, but after that the Penguins would have to start reaching to their taxi squad/Wilkes-Barre.
Kevin Czuczman and Pierre-Olivier Joseph could be two of the next Penguins up from the taxi squad that could play if they are looking to keep an even split of left and right-handed defensemen.
Regardless, while the outlying metrics may be good - each of the top-four have an xGF% far better than their actual GF% - the results haven’t been there yet, which could be the product of another factor...
The Silence of the Top Six at 5v5
Pittsburgh was bailed out on Tuesday night by their special teams, with three of their four regulation goals came on special teams. The power play came alive with goals by Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin, with a 5-on-3 shorthanded goal coming in between by Teddy Blueger.
Having such a star studded team, it’s not surprising that their power play is capable of bringing them back in games they didn’t have any business winning, but it’s their play at 5v5 that has put them in this early season position.
These are the forwards who have consistently made up the Penguins’ top six so far this season. Their teams two biggest stars, Sidney Crosby and Malkin, have yet to get on the scoreboard at 5v5 four games into the season.
Malkin scored the game tying goal on the power play, and Crosby scored the winner in overtime - so they haven’t completely disappeared - but the Penguins struggling for long stretches in games makes sense with them both sitting at no points at 5v5.
Evan Rodrigues has the top-six lone goal this season at 5v5, and he scored that off his skate off a Dumoulin redirect. Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, and Jason Zucker all have assists so far at 5v5.
*Line combination statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.
For comparisons sake I added the third lines metrics through four games as well to see how they have played compared to the top six.
A couple of reasons to be encouraged, despite the rough start. There is no way that the Penguins have a 2.8 SH% while Crosby and Guentzel on the ice for the entire season. There are both too good of players, and both have gotten on the board this season - just not at 5v5.
Their expected goal rate (xGF%) is better than the third line, they just haven’t been able to capitalize on it. It looks like it’s simply a case of an early season sample size issue for the top line, and it’s only a matter of time before they take off.
It may be a little more of a concern that the second line’s xGF% and GF% are so close together, but like the first line, there is no way that a trio of Zucker-Malkin-Rust are going to shoot just 5.06% over the course of an entire season.
The more concerning thing may end up being Malkin’s complete lack of, well, anything outside of his power play goal. He’s about as hot/cold as it gets, but this is entering a new kind of freezing temperatures for Geno.
While both the poor defensive play and injuries as well as the top-six lack of scoring is a concern, the real thing to watch for the Penguins will be the goaltending going forward.
Goaltending, or Lack There of
At one point, the Penguins had Tristan Jarry, Matt Murray, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Two of those three have been starting goaltenders for Stanley Cup winning teams and neither of them play for Pittsburgh anymore.
That was certainly an indicative of how the organization felt of Jarry that he has become the last man standing, but with the crease finally to himself he has for the most part been benched already this season.
After barely more than a game, Jarry found himself on the bench in favor of Casey DeSmith - who hadn’t played in the NHL in two years. DeSmith has yet to relinquish the net, starting both games against the Capitals, but the undrafted free agent out of the University of New Hampshire hasn’t faired too much better.
It’s hard to get too worked up over barely more than a game, but in the little Jarry has played he has looked that out of place.
He has allowed more goals from high-danger areas than he has stopped, posting a league worst .455 HDSV%. DeSmith, while a bit higher than Jarry in the same category, has given up the second most high-danger goals this season, the latter of course the leader.
Goaltending was certainly a question going into the season. The Penguins have had a solid 1-2 duo for the last couple of seasons, and the team rode the position to back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in 2017-2018.
This doesn’t seem to be a position of strength anymore, and while four games is far too early to make any harsh judgements, there isn’t much to like right now.
For what’s it worth General Manager Jim Rutherford doesn’t seem overly concerned about his netminder. “I think it’s too early to make an assessment,” Rutherford said in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. “It’s not the way anybody wants to start your new role as the number one goalie. You prefer to start it in a different way. But I’m not concerned with what I’ve seen.”
Goaltending will certainly be the biggest focus for the Penguins going forward, as even if everything else falls into place, if the combination of Jarry and DeSmith can’t keep the puck out the net, none of it will matter.
Which of these do you feel like is a legitimate concern for the Penguins? Or is it still too early to truly tell? Let us know in the comment section below and follow me on Twitter @AJ_Murfy.