Being a fan and a follower of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it is far too easy for myself or anyone in my position to look back at how the team did in the 2017-18 season and come up with words to describe what went right and what went wrong.After all, when I wake up in the morning every day, I don’t head to the gym or the practice rink and get ready for the next game. I don’t watch tape or go over strategies with my coaches. I don’t play ice hockey for and against the best players in the world for ten-plus minutes a night and have to deal with the consequences of my failure from coaches, teammates, and fans on a regular basis. I have it pretty easy in comparison!
So, when I think about writing a retrospective on this year’s Penguins team, I have to put things into context. First and foremost, the Penguins went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, a feat in and of itself in the salary cap era. Then add in the fact that they won both Finals, and you’ve got something extraordinary. That should never be forgotten. Nor should it be forgotten that the Penguins went through massive changes last summer in seeing so many key veterans leave through free agency.
However, with a few exceptions, this Penguins team was still fairly similar to last year’s team. Certainly the major contributors – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, Matt Murray – were still here and, until the playoffs, injuries did not factor in to how much they played compared to their careers or even last year. Crosby played a full 82 game season for the first time in his career; Malkin played 78 games for the fourth time in his twelve year career (and led the team in points); Kessel again didn’t miss a game; Letang played the second-most games in a season in his career (78 vs. 82 in 2010-11); and Murray played as many games as he did last season. Going down the list further we have Hornqvist at 70 games for the second straight year, Rust with his career-most (69…nice)…in fact, the only major departure was Justin Schultz, who only played 63 games (which was as many as two years ago).
To me, and evidently to the front office, the biggest issue was the bottom six. The top six (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist, Guentzel and Rust) scored 414 points this year compared to 148 points for the remaining forwards who played (a ratio of 2.8:1); last season it was 365 to 209 (1.746:1) and in 2015-16 it was 325 to 157 (2.07:1). The top six was clearly taxed as they were tasked with carrying the Penguins through the regular season, and they probably would have gotten away with it in the playoffs if they had been at 100%.
(Quick digression: I’m not a fan of coaches settling for less than 80% in the playoffs, but that’s what Mike Sullivan did. He was content to let injuries to Malkin, Kessel, Brassard, Simon, and whoever else hamper the Penguins’ chances in lieu of subbing in some WB/S guys. I recognize that it’s not ideal to have untested young guys come in to replace guys who are typical Hart or Art Ross or Conn Smythe nominees, but at least they were playing at 100% last we knew. If you’re gonna lose, at least lose trying. There’s no heroics in playing hurt and losing, which seems to be what happens way more than not.)
Defensively, I thought the whole crew did fine. That’s not to say they couldn’t have been better defensively (oh so many missed coverages and odd-man rushes), but the defensive zone mishaps have some blame amongst the forwards as well. Letang is…Letang. Maybe if he’s healthy all year like he was in 2016 he could get more top-ten Norris consideration. That’s the other part of the risk associated with having Kris Letang on your team. The bad part? I believe the medical term is “brain farts galore.” Brian Dumoulin has become an essential part of this defensive group, but I cringed at the “Larry Murphy” comparisons that were being made in the last few days of the playoffs. Dumo is not known for his offense like #55 was; Letang only just passed Murph for the Penguins playoffs points lead amongst defensemen, and Dumoulin is not anywhere near that list. Maatta and Schultz were limited offensively, which is a further indication that things did not go great for the Penguins as a team.
Ultimately, the Penguins were unable to last in the playoffs because they couldn’t help Matt Murray prevent goals, and that was the story all season long. Murray said that he was “empty” when the playoffs were over, and I think that was clear in how dull he played. He was gassed. I’m not going to jump on the same bandwagon that has been wishing that the Penguins had kept Marc-Andre Fleury over Murray; there’s no way reversing that decision would make sense in the long term. And those who look at how Fleury performed this year may be thinking that he’s turned a corner or experiencing a renaissance, but perhaps it might be because he has had better support in the defensive zone. There’s no reason the Penguins couldn’t do the same for Murray, but they clearly need to work on it.
In the immediate aftermath of the Penguins’ playoff exit, GM Jim Rutherford indicated that he will seek to improve the Penguins roster for next season, which is an obvious thing for most teams’ general managers to state in the aftermath of a losing season. Perhaps less obvious is how the Pens’ GM will negotiate such improvements. On the NHL squad, Pittsburgh has just one UFA (Carter Rowney, likely good as gone) and five arbitration-eligible RFAs: Tom Kuhnhackl, Jamie Oleksiak, Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, and Dominik Simon. Further down the depth chart organizationally there are six UFAs and eleven RFAs, seven of whom are arbitration-eligible. (That list of arbitration-eligible RFAs does not including Tristan Jarry and Daniel Sprong, both of whom had been assumed to be on the NHL roster next season.)
Looking ahead to next offseason, there are four UFAs (Brassard, DeSmith, Hagelin and Ruhwedel) and two RFAs (Aston-Reese and Guentzel), neither of whom are arbitration-eligible. As of right now, there’s ~$4.8 million in cap space for the Penguins this offseason (although the cap is expected to go up) and ~$15 million next year (again, based on this season’s cap). Long story short, there’s not a lot of obvious room to improve for next year, and if Rutherford is going to pull anything off, it’s take some fancy dancing.
Such fancy dancing has already been rumored to include a possible pursuit of Islanders UFA John Tavares. I’m not holding my breath that Tavares and the Islanders don’t come to terms before the end of June, but Tavares is up there along with Capitals defenseman John Carlson as one of the biggest potential names on the market. Many are already salivating at the idea of Crosby-Malkin-Tavares down the middle in Pittsburgh, but it would come at a considerable cost in terms of money and ignoring the need to improve the organizational depth.
Being treated as an afterthought here is the Entry Draft next month, where the Penguins currently will not have a first round pick for the second year in a row. This isn’t the end of the world since the Penguins have a fair amount of talented young guys playing in Pittsburgh and working their way through the organization already, and as I mentioned above there isn’t a lot of room in the near future for young blood with few players reaching the end of their contracts. Still, the fairly rapid promotions of players like Sheary, Rust, Guentzel, Murray, Aston-Reese, Simon, and Maatta over the last few years, plus trades that have seen the departure of high draft picks and prospects, has taken a toll on the depth the Penguins had in their system. Such is the price for two straight Cups I suppose.
Back in October in Gameday 01 I remarked on Bill Simmons rule that a championship indemnifies a front office of all criticism for five years. I think Jim Rutherford has earned that, but by all accounts he’s not content to sit pat and do nothing. There is room for improvement, to be sure, and he has the difficult task of making those improvements happen. It’s not going to happen with moves like adding Ryan Reaves and Matt Hunwick, although I do believe the moves will be marginal in nature such as those. Rutherford will have to find a way to push guys Simon and Hagelin out of the top six, to make the second line more like another first line and the third line like a second line again, to make the fourth line productive and not just a set of bodies to throw out there for less than ten minutes a night, to get some depth defenders who can more ably spell Letang and Schultz, and overall, focus on making the Penguins play as a team again.
Stay tuned to us here at Pens.Hockey during the offseason as we prepare for the draft and free agency. As usual, it will be a fascinating four months as we look to see what the Penguins will look like for the 2018-19 season.