The Pittsburgh Penguins have a problem. After falling to the thoroughly professional Red Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup final, winning it in 2009 was supposed to be the dawn of a dynasty.
Instead, the Penguins have had to settle for early exits from the post-season. A team that won four playoff rounds in 2009 has won all of four playoff rounds in the six combined seasons since. The last half-decade has belonged, not to Pittsburgh, but to more successful teams from Los Angeles and Chicago.
What went wrong? What needs to change for the Pens to once again be an elite team? The easiest way to answer that question might be to look at what has changed since 2009.
The first and most important item on the list is Marc-Andre Fleury. He was excellent in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs and was certainly not the reason the Penguins were eliminated early; in fact he was one of the team’s few bright spots. But we’re looking at the root causes of a long list of playoff eliminations, and when we do that he becomes impossible to ignore.
In the 2008 and 2009 post-seasons, Fleury went 30-14 with a .920 save percentage. Since, he has gone 22-26 with an .895 save percentage; that’s a difference of two extra goals against every three games. Some of that may be on the team defence, but let’s also recall that this was the same team that Tomas Vokoun managed to post a .933 save percentage for over 11 games when he stepped in to relieve Fleury in 2013. Not coincidentally, the playoff year in which Vokoun took over was the first since 2009 that saw the Pens advance to the third round.
Fleury was better this time around. Maybe that means Pittsburgh’s goaltending problems are fixed. Given that he has a new four-year contract at $5.75 million per season, the team had certainly hope so. That Fleury has not been good in the playoffs is hardly a secret. It’s one of two commonly cited problems with the Penguins, the other being the much-maligned supporting cast.
In discussing the supporting cast, it is important to remember those ’08 and ’09 playoff runs the way they actually were. Crosby and Malkin each managed 58 points in 44 games over those two runs; Pittsburgh’s third-ranked forward was Marian Hossa, who put up 26 points in 22 games the one year he was there. Max Talbot was the only other forward to crack the 20-point mark in 40-odd games. Back when the Penguins regularly won playoff series, they sure didn’t do it with depth.
Since 2009, things have not improved. The power play makes less use of Crosby and Malkin than it did in 2008 and 2009. The top duo combined for 46 percent of Pittsburgh’s playoff goals, but that number has fallen to just 19 percent since. It is not, however, because the Penguins’ power play is scoring more frequently; the wealth is just split more with players like Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang putting up offence. At even-strength, however, the non-Crosby/Malkin part of the team has taken a marginal step backward, losing roughly one goal every 10 games.
Crosby and Malkin have seen their numbers drop, too, at both even-strength and on the power play and even after allowing for ice-time fluctuations. Combined, the two star centres have gone from averaging 2.8 and 7.0 points per 60 minutes at even-strength and on the power play, respectively, down to 2.2 and 5.0 points. Even as the goaltending has imploded and the supporting cast has weakened, the team’s offensive leaders have declined in all situations.
If the problem is everything—the stars, the supporting cast and the goaltending—what’s the solution?
We should probably start with what it isn’t. Anybody arguing that the Penguins absolutely must trade one of Crosby or Malkin to clear cap space and reinforce other areas of the team is arguing lunacy. Presumably, they’ve missed how the Chicago Blackhawks have carved out a niche as the most dominant team in the NHL over the past half-decade with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on big contracts and different lines. Crosby and Malkin aren’t producing the way they once did, but they are still incredibly valuable and virtually impossible to replace.
The goaltending needs to be effective if the Penguins are to regain their former glory. New GM Jim Rutherford has followed predecessor Ray Shero’s strategy of betting big on Fleury, which may or may not work. A cautious man would have a fallback position, and so Pittsburgh must employ a second goalie it trusts, just in case Fleury reverts to his form of the last several years.
Vitally, everyone in the supporting cast must be improved. Shero’s great failing was that he proved consistently incapable of making progress in this department; there was change, but a lot of that change failed to represent improvement. Rutherford has made some progress and had some setbacks along the way; this summer, with many expiring contracts, he must advance further.
The basic strategy of building around Crosby and Malkin is a sound one and will likely continue to be for at least the next half decade. The Penguins have simply failed to execute.