|The Pittsburgh Penguins are currently an enigma wrapped inside of a riddle.|
Ordinarily, when an NHL squad is 28-14-8 and occupying the second seed in its division, that team has earned a measure of impunity from critics. Clearly, a roster that's mustered twice as many wins as losses has shown the ability to finish off their opponents while maintaining a high level of compete night in and night out.
Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Penguins are reinventing the notion of "underachieving" as they are the most disastrous 28-14-8 team in recent memory and have very little to hang their hat on heading into the trading deadline and homestretch of the 2014-15 season.
Established superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have contributed solid statistical numbers thus far this season (52 and 51 points, respectively), but both are producing at clips beneath their own career averages, and both have performed Houdini vanishing acts at various points throughout the season's games.
Crosby (who has denied an injury throughout struggles that stretch back to last year's Olympics) recently staggered through a career-long goal scoring drought while Malkin has buoyed stretches of his trademark galloping play with periods of general disinterest.
With the Penguins' superstars performing below expectations, the responsibility falls to the second tier of producers, and the results have been middling.
Chris Kunitz has tasted the third line for his uninspired play, and despite producing at a 30-goal rate, he has looked old and tired for too many contests. Patric Hornqvist opened October looking like a steal in the James Neal trade, but injuries have tempered his progress.
Likewise for Beau Bennett, who seems destined to never shake the 'injury prone' label and reach a level where his output matches his potential.
Kris Letang has played perhaps the best hockey in a system that aims to incorporate the defensemen more than under former head coach Dan Bylsma, but injuries have caused a revolving door of partners for everyone on the blue line. That lack of partner consistency due to injury— and coupled with a bizarre insistence on shuffling pairings with call-ups instead of trying to allow chemistry to develop— has left Pittsburgh's blue line a confused mess.
As for the embattled Marc-Andre Fleury, through December 31st he was a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate for the best goaltender in the NHL. Since the turn of the calendar, Fleury's struggles have been magnified by the litany of issues in front of him on the ice: no Penguins defensively marking opposing players, nobody clearing out the crease, and lazy, ill-conceived turnovers in front of Pittsburgh's own net resulting in primo scoring chances.
The Pens' problems extend out from there: Pittsburgh is having worlds of trouble generating transitions out of their own end of the ice, and when they do manage to get into the neutral zone, the league has collectively caught on and realized that the Penguins, despite their star players, simply can't beat the trap.
Pittsburgh's speed is being negated through the middle of the ice, and the meager attempts to chip behind the opposing defensemen are being turned back up ice into scoring chances by their opponents as one or two Penguin forwards seem to always be caught deep trying to retrieve the puck after the initial dump-in.
Add the struggles up and the Penguins are only two points ahead of being a wild-card playoff entrant and potentially facing the New York Islanders in the first round. That Islanders/Penguins matchup assumes, of course, that Pittsburgh actually makes the post-season as they're only 8 points ahead of the Florida Panthers, who have two games-in-hand.
Yes, injuries have played a large part in Pittsburgh's inconsistent play. Yes, the Penguins are finally getting healthy (aside from Pascal Dupuis), and yes, the move to acquire David Perron from the Edmonton Oilers gives Pittsburgh yet another set of skilled hands for the top two lines...
...but when the special teams are being anything but, and the likes of Zach Sill and Andrew Ebbett are still handed a jersey to play garbage minutes for a fourth line that would make an AHL team cringe, the team has serious problems that require serious measures to fix.
Does GM Jim Rutherford trade either Christian Ehrhoff or Paul Martin (or both?) to shore up the Penguins' third and fourth lines? Should Rutherford consider ending the tenure of Mike Johnston prematurely in favor of someone else with a stronger defensive mindset?
Decisions will be made within the next 30 days as to who shoulders the blame for the Penguins' recent stretch of abysmal play. The moves made by Rutherford will reflect what Mario Lemieux wants out of his roster, and will identify where the team brass believes the organization is lacking.