|Sidney Crosby Roofing a Goal Past Steve Mason in Philadelphia on October 29, 2016|
Sidney Crosby has returned from injury. He’s scoring in bunches. Malkin is scoring. Kessel is scoring. Marc Andre Fleury has been backstopping the team to win after win, with Matt Murray waiting in the wings for his first start of the 2016-2017 season.
But something still seems a little off for the Penguins.
The Penguins are one of only two teams in the top 50% of the league in points with a negative goal differential. The Penguins are giving up more shots than any team not named the Phoenix Coyotes. The Penguins penalty kill percentage is an unexciting 78.9%, good for 18th in the NHL. And the Carolina Hurricanes are averaging more goals per game than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There are leading indicators that predict a team’s ability to sustain reliable strings of winning. One of these indicators is a significantly positive shot differential. You know, the category the Penguins governed throughout their march to the 2016 Stanley Cup. Take as many shots on goal as possible, and block as many shots as possible. The Penguins have been taking shots (31.2 Shots/GP) albeit slightly less than usual, but are consistently giving up more (33.9 SA/GP) than they take.
Let’s face it, the Penguins are almost a lock for as a playoff team, and it would take a lot more than a lack of discipline over 9 games to take them out of the playoff discussion. But by all accounts, if something doesn’t change the Penguins will not stay atop the division.
Another concern the Penguins have is the scarcity of points coming from their blue line, which has been highlighted by the injury to Kris Letang. Over 9 games the blue liners have contributed a quiet 2 goals (Daley and Cole) and 7 assists (Daley 2, Letang 2, Schultz 2, and Maatta 1). In comparison, the Montreal Canadiens’ newly acquired Shea Weber has contributed 4 goals and 6 assists to the only remaining NHL team without a regulation loss. A return of Kris Letang, and Justin Schultz improving his aim on the power play may be two key factors for this blue line to turn around their woeful offensive output.
And the three quietest factors on the team that need awakening are Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Bryan Rust who combined for a -15 and 3 total points. Carl Hagelin hasn’t passed the eye test for speed early in the season, and rightfully so. Hagelin played a long season, and sprinters usually aren’t also marathon runners. Nick Bonino started the year last season almost as dismally. And Bryan Rust only has 13 career regular season points, so his postseason acrobatics in the Tampa Bay Lightning series may have set his expectations too high coming into this season.
The Penguins are 9 games into the season, and there’s a lot of hockey left to play. But you can be certain the management are not resting on their laurels with a 6-2-1 record. They can sense that the strong record is a false song if something doesn’t change.
The Penguins didn’t find their groove until January last year, so analysis at this point in the season is usually hyperbole. But, the stars are being stars and are in desperate need of secondary scoring from the blue line and from Hagelin, Bonino and Rust.