Are the Pittsburgh Penguins still a top Stanley Cup contender?

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Once upon a time, two Stanley Cups ago, it appeared the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ chance to win a championship was over. When the team fired head coach Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, 2015, it was in dire straits. Superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had seen a drop in production, the depth beyond them was weak, the team was up against the salary cap and it had a starting goalie with a poor recent playoff history.

Then a number of things went the Penguins’ way. New coach Mike Sullivan kicked them into high gear, playing aggressive, up-tempo hockey, and GM Jim Rutherford traded for key role players Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley. Young goalie Matt Murray came out of the AHL to raise two Cups.

Depending on how optimistic you want to be, you could take different morals from the story of the 2015-16 Penguins. Yes, their recent past proves they can rebound quickly so long as Crosby and Malkin are still around. But a lot of things had to break their way — things that are unlikely to be repeated.

After being a popular Stanley Cup pick this preseason, things haven’t gone swimmingly for the Pens in 2017-18, and they’re currently out of a playoff position. Which direction will the remainder of the season go for the Penguins? Let’s have a look.

Is a hot stretch on the way?

It can be challenging to figure out whether a team’s struggles during a stretch is a matter of poor play or simply puck luck. There are certainly reasonable criticisms of the Penguins’ play, but in this case it’s easy to see how luck is impacting their place in the standings.

At even strength, Pittsburgh has the worst goals for percentage in the NHL. Worse than Arizona. Worse than Buffalo. Dead last.

Considering the talent, it seems unfathomable that the Penguins could be dominated so badly. But their play might not be matching up with the results. Pittsburgh has put the second-most shots on goal in the NHL this season, and has outshot opponents by 136 shots. They have a 50-50 split in scoring chances and close shots, according to the analytics website Natural Stat Trick. But Pittsburgh also has both the worst shooting percentage and worst save percentage in the NHL.

Taking more shots on goal and getting the same number of close shots as opponents, and still ending up last in goal differential is quite difficult to do. In fact, Pittsburgh’s numbers in shots and high-danger shots aren’t much different from last season:

Unfortunately for the Pens, the player with the worst luck of anyone has been Crosby. The future Hall of Famer has never posted a 5-on-5 shooting percentage below 10 percent. This season, just 4.2 percent of his even-strength shots have found the back of the net. Last season, he scored 26 goals at 5-on-5, while he has only three this season in that situation. Crosby’s shot rate is down from 2.3 even-strength shots per game to 1.8, but that shouldn’t be expected to sink his 5-on-5 production to the bottom of the league.

Additionally, Crosby has only six assists at 5-on-5 despite his team outshooting opponents 388-321 with him on the ice. Likewise, No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang has been on ice for a 370-323 shot differential — and the team has been outscored 39-15 during that time.

It’s not impossible for superstar players’ numbers to stay this low, it’s just extremely unlikely.

What needs to change?

For starters, the Penguins need goaltender Matt Murray to look anything like the player he has been during the past two seasons. In the first 62 NHL games of his career, Murray went 41-12-5 in the regular season, with a .925 save percentage and a 60.0 quality start percentage. In the playoffs, he went 22-9 with a .928 save percentage and 67.7 quality start percentage. This season, he has fallen off drastically, with a .902 save percentage and just 12 quality starts in 27 tries (44.4 percent).

The biggest worry about the two-time Cup champ is that his even-strength save percentage has collapsed. Normally we see fluctuations in play based on penalty kill save percentage, but Murray’s 5-on-5 mark is down from .932 in his first 62 games to .905 this season.

Early on, it might have been fair to blame the team’s overall defense, but 22-year-old netminder Tristan Jarry was called upon to play most of the Penguins’ games in December, and posted a .928 save percentage during the month. Assuming the injury he suffered Tuesday night against Philadelphia isn’t serious, the Penguins might have to stick with Jarry until Murray can solve his issues.

The Penguins’ supporting cast needs a boost, too.

While Hagelin was key in 2015-16, he has been a nonfactor this season, scoring only two goals in 40 games. Pittsburgh hoped to kickstart Riley Sheahan‘s career, but he has potted only three goals in 32 games. At one time, Conor Sheary appeared to be an exciting young skill player. This season, he has managed only 16 points in 41 games. And Bryan Rust has one even-strength goal in 38 games.

Adding to the bottom six might prove difficult. According to CapFriendly, the Penguins have about only $350,000 in current cap space, meaning they can’t simple move picks for a rental player.

Pittsburgh might have to move a defenseman to find scoring depth, but contracts like Brian Dumoulin‘s, which runs through 2022, or Olli Maatta‘s (through 2021) could be hard to move. Upcoming free agent Ian Cole would be the most likely player moved, but his value on the market isn’t high.

So even if the Penguins get some puck luck for Crosby and better goaltending from Murray, they still wouldn’t be as deep as the previous two seasons’ teams, which had Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen as the third- and fourth-line centers.

Stiff competition

One thing that is nice about being a hockey fan is that your team is almost never out of the race until it’s over. The Penguins’ season has been a disaster, yet the team enters Thursday’s action just a point out of a playoff spot (though with more games played than the teams ahead of it).

The problem is that the teams currently ahead of Pittsburgh are quite strong. The New York Islanders, who sit one spot ahead of the Penguins, have an incredibly explosive offensive attack. They’ve scored the second most even-strength goals in the NHL, trailing only the Toronto Maple Leafs, and are two up on the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the Isles get any sort of goaltending down the stretch, they will be tough to knock out of a spot.

Getting into the top three teams in the Metropolitan Division would be an impressive turnaround. Washington and New Jersey don’t appear to be going anywhere. The Capitals are ninth in even-strength goal scoring, and Alex Ovechkin is showing no signs of slowing down with 26 goals this season. The Devils are seeing the fruits of their trade for Taylor Hall, who leads the team in scoring with 37 points. Overall, New Jersey ranks eighth in goals per game.

Beyond those two, Columbus has struggled a bit of late but has the NHL’s sixth-best shots-on-goal differential and a former Vezina Trophy winner in nets. Meanwhile, the Rangers have been picking up steam lately, and have a plus-11 goal differential even after being outscored 5-2 by the Blackhawks Wednesday night.

At least one other team hunting for a wild card spot is formidable. Carolina is an analytics darling, ranking No. 1 in shot differential — though they are 24th in goals scored and 18th in goals against.

While the opposition might be challenging, each team has its shortcomings. The Blue Jackets are 31st in power play, the Islanders are 31st in goals against and Carolina is relying too much on goaltender Cam Ward to carry it.

The door will be open for the Penguins to gain ground in January. They match up with the Hurricanes twice, as well as the Islanders, Bruins, Red Wings and Rangers.

The bottom line

By no means should anyone write off the Penguins. At some point soon, pucks should start bouncing their way and they haven’t fallen so far in the Eastern Conference that they are out of the race.

However, it’s certainly questionable whether Pittsburgh can be a legitimate Cup contender again. Head coach Mike Sullivan might be able to get them into the postseason, but without some 2015-esque savvy moves from the front office, the Penguins will have a very difficult time making it back to the Stanley Cup Final.

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