The Pittsburgh Penguins currently find themselves 5th in the Eastern Conference with 22 points in 18 games, a 100 point pace that has them sitting as the first wild card due to the imbalanced nature of the conference. It's been an up and down season so far for the team, and that record belies some of the issues the team has seen on the ice. It would have been nearly impossible to imagine that the team could somehow find itself 27th in the league in scoring with 2.17 goals per game and entirely unthinkable that a power play featuring Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel could sit 27th in the league at 14.3%.
If Tuesday's game against the Minnesota Wild was any indication, it's only a matter of time before the power play corrects itself and gets back on track. Beau Bennett scored on a one time from the slot, and Evgeni Malkin's power play goal came after a number of shots and scoring chances. That power play is exactly the mindset the Pens need to have. The first unit registered 6 shot attempts in the 1:13 before the Malkin goal. They've got the shooters who can put the puck in the net and the passers who can find the right man off rebounds and broken down plays. The less the team passes up good scoring chances trying to get the puck to a better scoring chance, the better they'll be. The talent is there - the results should follow.
Where the talent isn't is on the blue line, and it's an inexcusable development for a management group that should have known from day 1 after Rutherford's introductory press conference the type of state the defense would be in this season if they didn't do anything to address it. Christian Ehrhoff was signed to a 1 year contract in the offseason, but despite repeated reports that the team and the player would come to an agreement on an extension nothing came of it. Paul Martin's tenure as the team's most consistent defenseman was coming to a close, and it doesn't appear the team did much more than see him out the door. They managed a minor upgrade swapping Bortuzzo for Cole, but even that was undone by giving away Simon Despres to bring Ben Lovejoy back. The team was willing to let a lot of talent leave without any apparent plan to fix the situation.
That's not to suggest that the front office sat on their hands all offseason. They identified the pressing need at forward and made several good moves to bolster the depth up front. They even managed to bring back a young, talented defenseman while doing so. However, where they failed was in recognizing how the defense was just as much of an issue as the forwards. Despite a thin lineup on paper, Rutherford said that he was, "comfortable with (our defense) going into the season, but it is certainly the area [they] will watch the closest." It was foolish when he said it, it would have been foolish had the defense played to expectation, and it's devastating given how everything's played out. It's been worst case scenario for Pittsburgh since training camp when Derrick Pouliot played himself out of a roster spot. Things continued as the team's two most talented defensemen, and also the two coming off long term injuries, in Kris Letang and Olli Maatta have both struggled to start the season. Now Maatta is injured again after an awful cross check from behind by Nino Niederreiter. While the early prognosis is that he avoided injuries to internal organs, the current outlook is that he'll be "more week-to-week than day-to-day".
Losing Maatta is one of the last things an already stretched thin defense could afford to have happen and leaves Kris Letang as the only true top 4 defeseman left on the team. As Ryan Wilson wrote earlier this week before the Maatta injury, the Penguins are doing everything they can to prop up a bad defense, and they still have some of the worst possession numbers in the league, though instead of being bad on their own they're being bad while dragging the offense down with them. If not for Marc Andre Fleury this ugly situation would have already boiled over long ago; it's not going to be pretty when Fleury's numbers start regressing to the mean. Making matters worse is that the team has options like Adam Clendening and Pouliot who they refuse to use regardless of how poorly the blue line performs. Clendening showed last night why he should be given a chance, and why the staff should show some patience and allow him to work through the types of mistakes you'd expect a younger player to make.
It's unlikely that the problem will be solved from within, at least this season, which is unfortunate because it's the same problem the team faced in the offseason. Playing defensemen like Clendening and Pouliot can only help shift play towards the other end of the rink, but with how badly outmatched at full strength the blue line has been it's not likely to be enough. The team badly needs to add talent, but they've already traded away their 1st round draft pick and there's not a lot in the organization that's going to attract the interest of a team with a defenseman worth trading for. The decision for the front office to ignore the defense this offseason was a costly and misguided one, but it's just next in line of a number of misguided decisions this staff has already made in their short tenure.