Gameday 60: Face Plant

It was going to happen eventually, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have seemingly and grudgingly arrived at the point they were last at twenty years ago: they’re cooked. This past weekend the Penguins suffered back-to-back losses to the Calgary Flames (another one goal loss, this time of the 4-3 variety which has become the most common way for Pittsburgh to lose this season) and the Edmonton Oilers (a healthy 6-1 spanking, saved from being their second-biggest shutout of the year by Evgeni Malkin’s first goal since January 26 and just his third in this calendar year). The defeats see the Penguins now nine points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for third in the Metropolitan Division and ten points out of a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. Depending on your source, their odds of making the playoffs are around 20%.

Cutting straight to the chase, Pittsburgh just doesn’t look like a playoff team, do they? I mentioned it somewhere (maybe even in the comments in a previous post), but again for those of you clinging to the last strands of hope that they might by some miracle(s) squeak into a playoff spot: these Penguins are not last year’s Florida Panthers. Those Panthers were young-ish, but certainly energetic and tenacious, and those are some good qualities for a team that looks to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. This year’s Florida team is a continuation of last year’s team, and they currently have the best record in the NHL as a result. The Panthers have been one of the best teams in the NHL since last spring, and they’re a pretty good bet to make a return visit to the Finals again this June.

You can’t look at the Panthers and not think the Penguins are completely the opposite of them. Pittsburgh is slow, old, and folds like a piece of printer paper. They might have moments where they overcome themselves and win games, but rarely in consistent fashion. Recall that the Penguins’ biggest winning streak of the season was back in November when they beat San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Buffalo and Columbus…four non-playoff teams sandwiching a Kings team that probably won’t last long in the postseason. Since then, Pittsburgh has a 19-18-8 record and a -6 goal differential, with two three-game winning streaks, two two-game winning streaks, and a smattering of wins otherwise. They’re not good, but they’re not as bad as they could be. They’re just…mediocre.

The decision on how they proceed from here is going to develop slowly, arduously, painfully over the coming days, weeks, and months. There will be trades, and no one will be 100% happy with all of them; indeed there may be some players not traded who probably should be, and again there will not be universal contentment. There will be firings, or at least there should be, and the fact that they haven’t happened sooner is already under some people’s skins. There will be a desire to tank, but it will not happen as long as Sidney Crosby is in town, and all arrows are pointing to him extending his contract with the Penguins yet again this offseason, so there will not be tanking. There may still be some wins on the schedule, but only enough to keep Pittsburgh in the less-desirable teens in the entry draft this summer and not into the top ten like some people are hoping for. A full blown rebuild is not happening this offseason, so forget it.

There’s 23 games left to play in the 2023-24 regular season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s 46 points up for grabs, as if this team could win all 23 games from here forward. If the Penguins have any hope to make the playoffs, they would have to crack the mid-90s in points; that’s 33 points to get from their current 62 to 95. That’s 16 wins and an overtime loss from now until April 17 to even think about being in the playoffs, or a 75% points pace. That’s a stretch for a team that has only been at that point eleven times all season long. It’s a long shot, not impossible, but highly improbable. I don’t know that it’s worth trying at this point. If that’s Kyle Dubas’ thinking as well, there’s little sense to waiting to start looking towards next season.