With over a quarter of the NHL season in the books, it is a reasonable time to evaluate teams and their body of work up to this point. In an off-season that brought a new coach and GM to Pittsburgh along with several key personnel changes, the Penguins have shaken things up while keeping their elite talent in place. Ultimately, the verdict will be out on coach Mike Johnston and general manager Jim Rutherford’s roster until they reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Following their cup runs in ’08 and ’09, the Pens have flopped in the playoffs, being knocked out each year by teams which were perceived to have less talented rosters.
After 21 games, it isn’t easy to find many flaws with the current configuration of the Penguins, as they currently have the best record in the NHL with a 15-4-2 record. And their goal differential of +27, which leads the league by a wide margin, shows exactly how dominant they’ve been. Yet, despite the early success, the team is far from perfect, and has exhibited weaknesses along with their strengths in different aspects of the game.
The forward group has been excellent this year, featuring strong play up the middle from centers Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Brandon Sutter. It’s a given that the top two lines, anchored by Sid and Geno, will put up a ton of goals, and this year has been no disappointment. The former MVPs comprise two of the top three spots in the NHL scoring race, and new wingers Patric Hornqvist and Blake Comeau have combined for 18 goals (one fewer than the duo of 87 and 71). The early surprise has come from the third line, led by Sutter and a former Flyer, Steve Downie. With Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett being injured, the third line has been patched together at times with an assortment of players. But Sutter and Downie, consistently kept together, have been strong both as a checking and scoring line, putting up a highly impressive GF% (ratio of goals for vs. goals against) of 69.2 of while on the ice together. As a point of comparison, Malkin and Crosby have a GF% of 68.2 when playing together. The fourth line has also played fairly well and has shown the capacity to handle difficult assignments against opposing teams’ top lines.
It remains to be seen how the forward depth will step up in the wake of Dupuis’ injury, but Blake Comeau has shown top-six ability during the interim. Comeau netted a hat trick Wednesday versus Toronto on a line with Malkin and Hornqvist, and is second on the roster in points-per-minutes played. Even before Pascal’s injury announcement, it was widely believed that Rutherford was on the lookout for a top-six forward. Therefore, it is fair to expect at least one significant addition to the group before the trading deadline in March.
In general, the unit responsible for ranking 4th in goals allowed (5 on 5 situations) and 7th in overall goals against has performed quite well. The defense features difference-maker Kris Letang, who occasionally frustrates fans with unforced errors but generally performs at an all-star level. The rising star has recently excelled in Mike Johnston’s system, and has the fifth most points among all defensemen on the year. Coveted free-agent signing Christian Ehrhoff has yet to win over fans, but in reality the blue-liner has played at a high level in the black and gold. While Ehrhoff has failed to score a goal, he does lead the Penguin defense with six even-strength assists and a team high GF% of 71.4 (which is 3rd among all NHL players with 300+ minutes). He also leads the team in minutes played and plus-minus, as his +13 rating ranks fourth-best in the league.
Youngster Olli Maatta has faced his toughest competition in a cancer scare, and has been admirable in battling adversity while showing flashes of brilliance. The 20 year old has the highest “Fenwick For %” among Pens defensemen, a number that essentially measures a ratio of team shots created versus shots against while that player is on the ice. Maatta should improve and solidify his game as he picks up valuable big-league experience.
Paul Martin has been an adequate top-four defenseman, and the same could be said regarding Rob Scuderi as part of the third-pairing. With the extra defensive depth in the system, it would not be a surprise to see Martin or a younger defensive player get traded, which could free up cap space and potentially help land a big-time forward.
Pens Report Card, Continued..