It’s been a while since I’ve hurt your eyes and your sensibilities with my writing. But now is as good a time as any to burst back into your lives. Today, the Gripes sets its sights on one thing and one thing only: The Pittsburgh Penguins, A Season on the Brink….
To say the Penguins are struggling would be an understatement. At the halfway point, the Penguins find themselves in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, with 46 points. They are 12 points back of the New York Rangers for 1st place in the Atlantic Division (as well as the Eastern Conference). They sit precariously one point ahead of Winnipeg and two points ahead of the Washington Capitals for that final playoff spot. To break things down further, let’s divide things into three categories….
—>The Penguins are one of five teams in the conference with a positive goal differential. The Bruins, Rangers, Flyers, and Maple Leafs also are on the plus side, and those teams are also currently holding playoff spots. Usually, teams on the positive end of goal differential for the season are doing well, and find their way into the post-season.
—>James Neal has been a massive contributor to the team offensively. After a hot start in October (a common feature of a Neal season), many feared that he would cool off as the season wore on (also common for Neal). While his goal-scoring pace has dwindled some, he is still in the Top 10 in goals, as well as being the top power play goal-scorer in the NHL. For a team with notorious power play struggles, Neal’s success with the man advantage has been so important.
—>Marc-Andre Fleury is (at worst) in the top 5 of goaltenders in the NHL, and his play has kept things together defensively (more on that in a moment). His positioning continues to improve, which has made his fundamentals very strong. He also still has the athleticism to make the big saves at key times, even when a goal seems so likely for the opposition. His puck-handling still could be better (even though he’s much better than the average fan gives him credit for), but overall, MAF has been nothing short of stellar between the pipes.
—->Matt Niskanen has made a huge leap in the last 11 months. During his first couple months here, Niskanen struggled greatly at times, leading to many wanting to run him out of town in the off-season. Fortunately, Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma were patient with the defenseman, and that patience paid off in a big way. Niskanen is only behind an injured Kris Letang in defensive scoring, he has the top plus/minus stat on the team, he’s replaced Letang on the top power play unit with no shakiness at all, and has taken on more minutes per game, handling that workload increase with little difficulty. In the last handful of games, Niskanen has been less noticeable, but considering how bad things have looked lately for the entire team, being unnoticed is a positive thing.
—->Also worthy of note: Pascal Dupuis had a great start to the season, with very high point totals, especially in October and November. While Dupuis has faded into his usual secondary role lately, Evgeni Malkin has come to the forefront once again. He has found his way into the Top 10 in points in the league, and continues to be a consistent threat despite being the “last man standing”, in terms of the three well-known centers in the Pens’ lineup.
—->On a macro level (and I am an Economics major, so this is how my brain works), the biggest problem is the lack of consistency. And I don’t just mean game to game. Sometimes, it’s period to period. Sometimes, it’s shift to shift. On occasion, it’s even a problem during shifts. This is mostly a focus and concentration problem, it seems. And that’s a rather large issue, in my eyes. It means that both the coaches and players are failing. The coaches haven’t absolutely hammered home the need to play the same way every time that the players get on the ice. And the players haven’t felt the need to play the same way every time they get on the ice. The most frustrating part of this is that there have been long stretches where the team has looked like the best in the league. Back to back performances against Buffalo and Chicago showed that they have that capability. And there have been other times where they looked just as good, if not better. But then there have been stretches that are so awful, you wonder if this team is capable of making the playoffs. Consistency needs to be the goal. And that goal needs to be achieved.
—->When he was re-signed over the summer, there was an expectation that Tyler Kennedy would get chances as a top 6 forward, and he would deliver on those chances like he showed he could last season. It just hasn’t happened for Kennedy. He missed 11 games early in the season due to injury. When he has played, however, he has not had nearly the same impact he did last season. Only 5 goals in 30 games isn’t nearly acceptable. Zero power play goals, that’s nearly unforgivable. He has had chances, playing with Jordan Staal for most games. Staal has had a great impact, scoring 15 goals on the season. Kennedy’s impact hasn’t been large enough, and due to injuries, his impact needs to increase.
—->Paul Martin’s contract is one of the highest-paying on the Penguins. With that paycheck, the responsibility is very high. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he has to be piling up points, nor does it mean that he has to be a big hitter and shot-blocker on the defensive end. But what it does mean is that he absolutely must be consistent defensively, in sound defensive position, and most importantly not making the big mistakes that lead to goals. Unfortunately, if you’ve watched him play this season, you know that Martin has struggled with that list. Inconsistency is a common theme for Martin. He has missed seven games due to injury/illness, but in the 34 games he has played, he has the worst plus/minus rating on the team. He also has looked lost defensively at times, and has lacked strength on the puck. His defensive partner, Zbynek Michalek, also hasn’t played up to his capabilities, but Martin’s been just horrendous at times, and when you make five million dollars per season, you need to be close to the best defenseman on the team, not close to the worst.
—->Marc-Andre Fleury is a fantastic goaltender, but he can’t play every single game. MAF’s backup is Brent Johnson, and in previous years, he’s been one of the best backup goalies in the NHL. At one point last season, he took over the #1 job from Fleury, and was holding onto it quite capably. This season, however, is a completely different story. Johnson has played in 9 games to this point, and has put up some horrifying statistics. 2-5-2 for a record, with a 3.47 goals against average, and a save percentage of .876, which are hideous numbers. But those don’t even fully capture Johnson’s struggles. He looks like he is flailing at pucks at times, and appears to be off his angles on far too many occasions. The Penguins need Johnson to get them points in the standings when he is between the pipes. Right now, he has only gotten them 6 out of 18 possible points. It’s not nearly good enough. And it might be time for the Pens to move on with a better backup, whether it be Brad Thiessen or an option from outside the organization.
—->There is only one thing in this category, and it’s the only thing that fits right. It’s the injuries. The Penguins were plagued with bad health last season, with Crosby, Staal, and Malkin only playing 2 games together. And those two games featured Crosby’s first concussion issues. The Penguins thought they had moved on from all their injury woes as they moved ahead to the 2011-12 season. Not so fast, though.
The following is a list (in no particular order) of every Penguins player who has missed time this season due to injury/illness: Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang, Niskanen, Asham, Engelland, Martin, Orpik, Kennedy, Park, Michalek, Lovejoy, Despres, Jeffrey, Bortuzzo, Strait.
That is seventeen players. Yes, you read that right. Seventeen. Nearly an entire team worth of skaters. Including the highest-paid, most important skaters on the team. It’s very tough for a team to win games with all those players out. And it’s no surprise that the team is clawing and scratching to get a playoff spot, instead of comfortably sitting in a spot that allows for home-ice in playoff series.
So, with half the season in the books, the Pittsburgh Penguins are closer to last place in the Eastern Conference (10 points in front of the New York Islanders) than they are to first place in the Eastern Conference (12 points behind the New York Rangers). Things appear to be at a breaking point, especially if you read reports regarding the uncertainty surrounding Sidney Crosby at the moment. This could be a complete collapse for the Pens. Or they could rally and find a way to win the division. Or anywhere in between. I honestly think you could sell me on any scenario at this point.
Where do I think it goes from here? I’m usually a realist in my outlook on everything. But I’m an optimist when it comes to the Penguins. So, I’m seeing things finally falling into place. Players get healthy, scoring finally returns, MAF continues to play at his stellar level, and the Pens climb back into the East’s Top 4. If that happens, the rest of the East needs to look out in the playoffs.
In reality, though, the Pens will probably continue to struggle, but will find a way to sneak into the playoffs, then will exit quietly in the first round. All while the Rangers and Flyers make deep runs. And that’s where I take my leave, before I end up vomitting all over myself….