Are the Penguins legit Cup contenders?

The Pittsburgh Penguins won their sixth in a row on Sunday, beating the league-leading Washington Capitals 6-2, in a game that was only ever close after an errant rebound bounced off of Jason Chimera’s forehead and into the back of the net.

It’s striking how quickly the storyline has changed for the Penguins. On March 12th, SBNation blog Pensburgh writer Hooks Orpik wrote the following, on the injury to Evgeni Malkin:

‘…without Evgeni Malkin, all the looks of being dangerous in the playoffs seems to go out the window. Unfortunate, but a tough one to take. We’ll see if the team can rally and overcome adversity, but just as losing Letang last year was a fatal blow, it seems unlikely that this Pens team, sans Malkin, has the power to win a round if they even can qualify for the playoffs.’

Just over a week later, the Pens are third in the Eastern Conference, a virtual lock for the playoffs, and getting some buzz as legitimate Cup contenders.

Since their coaching change in December, the Penguins have been a completely different team. Under Mike Sullivan, they have posted some of the best underlying numbers in the league, controlling over 54% of even-strength shots and goals.

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Like the Dallas Stars in the West, this team is built to score. There still isn’t a better 1-2 punch down the middle than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in this league, and adding Phil Kessel this summer has given them a third elite offensive threat. Since the coaching change the Pens are first in the league in even-strength goals, and Sidney Crosby has looked like a league MVP again.

The real question mark for this team is on the blue line. Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford admitted as much at the press conference for the coaching change in December:

‘In fairness to our coach, part of this falls on me because I didn’t get the defenceman that was necessary to have more puck movement from the back end,” Rutherford acknowledged. “More puck movement from the back end generates more scoring opportunities.”’ (h/t Bleacher Report)

Since Johnston’s firing, Rutherford has done his best to add puck-moving defencemen. But years of swapping prospects and draft picks for short-term help left the Pittsburgh GM with few assets and little cap space to work with.

Just days after the coaching change, the Penguins moved Rob Scuderi to the Blackhawks for Trevor Daley.

The move was as much addition by subtraction as regular old addition. For all his crease-clearing physicality, Scuderi has next to no puck-moving, skating, or offensive element to his game whatsoever.

Daley’s game has its own flaws: he’s consistently had a negative impact on shot differentials, and was never able to earn Joel Quenneville’s trust in Chicago as a defensively responsible player. But he’s also a swift skater, a confident puck distributor, and one of the best point scoring defencemen in the NHL at even strength.

The Penguins made a similar move at the trade deadline, acquiring Justin Schultz from the Edmonton Oilers. Schultz, once anointed as having Norris Trophy potential by former Oilers GM and coach Craig MacTavish, had fallen out of favour in Edmonton and had spent time in the press box this season.

For all his flaws, Schultz clearly has some ability as a puck-moving defenceman. He has two 30+ point seasons in the NHL, and put up 48 points in 34 games in his one AHL season. If you’re looking for an inexpensive pickup – it took just a third-round pick to pry him away from the Oilers – to move the puck up the ice, you could do a lot worse.

And so far, it’s all worked pretty well. Daley has played really good hockey for the Pens, and Schultz is excelling with carefully managed minutes and powerplay time.

So the mid-season additions have fit in well, Kris Letang is still terrific, and some of the younger players are showing a lot of promise. But does this look like a group that can handle the Rangers’ forwards in a seven game series? Or the Lightning? Or hell, even the Bruins?

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When you line up Pittsburgh’s defence next to some other Cup contenders, it doesn’t look great. Washington, Los Angeles, and even Tampa Bay have skill, physicality, and experience on their blueline that Pittsburgh just can’t match.

The Penguins have a strong number one in Kris Letang, and seven intriguing three-through-six defencemen. They don’t have a Hjalmarsson-esque second-pairing guy, someone who can eat up tough minutes against the best in the league. Statistically, the Penguins’ defencemen all show pretty well; Rutherford and the Penguins are making a bet that this blueline is underrated, that their depth will step up, and that they have enough talent for the Penguins to make a run in the playoffs.

This kind of bet isn’t unprecedented. You can build a Cup winner with weakness on the blueline: the Chicago Blackhawks did it just last year, with their four-man defence corps.

It took a super-human performance from Duncan Keith, but the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last year despite their defensive depth, not because of it.

Can Kris Letang put the Penguins on his back and drag his team deep into the playoffs? Can Pittsburgh’s depth defencemen keep the puck in the other end enough to let the Pens outgun their opposition? Both will be necessary for the Penguins to put together a long run.

This team could very easily flame out in the first round, and if they do, the blame will fall on Rutherford and the inexperience of Pittsburgh’s blueline.

But right now the Penguins are playing the best hockey in the NHL. Even without Malkin, this team has two of the NHL’s most dangerous forwards in Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel; if the defence can hold their own, this team could go far.

Before that, though, they’ll need to get through the first round without Evgeni Malkin

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