Nearly a month into the season, and it has been business as usual for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They won seven of their first eight games, have been one of the highest scoring teams in the league, and have been stomping all over a schedule that has been mostly made up of non-playoff teams from a year ago.
Perhaps the most impressive part of their torrid start is that they have been doing it without two of their best players: winger James Neal (he only appeared briefly in one game, the season opener) and Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang. You can also add former first round draft pick Beau Bennett to the list, as he has been out of the lineup for a week with a lower body injury.
Sidney Crosby is once again the driving force behind nearly everything that happens for this team, and he has been playing some of the best hockey of his career. Jussi Jokinen has filled in admirably for Neal alongside Evgeni Malkin to give Pittsburgh a potent second line. Together, Pittsburgh’s top six is as lethal and intimidating as any other team’s in the league.
If there is a concern with the Penguins right now, it is the makeup of the roster beyond the first two lines. Since the start of the 2006-07 season, Pittsburgh has been fortunate enough to have two of the best players in the world filling out the middle of their lineup, and as long as they have Crosby and Malkin under contract (assuming both are healthy), they are going to be a contender for the Stanley Cup, especially with the core of top-flight talent that has been assembled around them.
With their current roster, the Penguins are good enough to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. But after back-to-back first round exits in 2011 and 2012, and then being on the wrong end of an Eastern Conference Final sweep in 2013, the Penguins probably are not satisfied with simply competing for the Cup. It’s about winning.
But is this team deep enough up front to get back to the Stanley Cup Final? Any team that has a healthy Crosby and Malkin is going to be a potential powerhouse. As recent seasons have shown us, however, Stanley Cup-winning teams need to be three and four lines deep. The 2012-13 Blackhawks went through the regular season using a third line of Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, and Viktor Stalberg. They all scored at a 35-40 point pace over an 82-game schedule, and were over 52 percent in the possession game. The 2011-12 Kings had similar success with their third line, one that was anchored by Jarrett Stoll and Dustin Penner.
The Penguins are not getting that sort of production from their bottom six.
The problem that teams like the Penguins run into in the salary cap era is filling out a well-rounded roster around such an obscenely expensive core. The Penguins are incredibly top-heavy in terms of their salary cap structure, with their five highest-paid players (Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Paul Martin, and Marc-Andre Fleury) taking up more than 50% of their allotted cap space. When Letang’s new eight-year, $58 million extension kicks in next season, it creates one more megadeal for the Pens need to fit under the cap. A team dedicating that much of its cap space to such a small core of players is nothing new. Just about every Stanley Cup contender (and just about every Stanley Cup champion) has a similar cap structure, whether it is Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Vancouver, or San Jose.
But the Penguins have seemingly taken it one step further (no team in the league has a higher percentage of its allotted cap space going to five players), and it puts a great deal of pressure on the front office and scouting staff to assemble enough quality depth to make it all work.
The cap crunch over the years has resulted in quite a bit of turnover when it comes to Pittsburgh’s third and fourth lines. A couple of years ago, they had one of the best third lines in the league, with Jordan Staal doing the heavy lifting in between Tyler Kennedy, a strong possession player with a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality, and Matt Cooke, a feisty defensive forward who could also chip in 15 goals every year.
For a variety of reasons, mostly cap related, that line has entirely moved on. Staal was traded to Carolina for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and a first round draft pick during the 2012 draft. Tyler Kennedy was sent to San Jose for a 2013 draft pick. Cooke signed with the Minnesota Wild as a free agent over the summer.
All of that turnover has resulted in a bottom six that has featured different combinations of Brandon Sutter, Tanner Glass, Craig Adams, Chuck Kobasew, Harry Zolnierczyk, Joe Vitale, Dustin Jeffrey, and even defenseman Deryk Engelland rounding out the third and fourth lines over the first few weeks (and recently, diminutive call-up Chris Conner).
In recent games against Philadelphia and Vancouver, for example, the Penguins’ third line consisted of Sutter centering Glass and Adams, which looks more like a fourth line. The result has been a team that is completely dominant when its first two lines are on the ice, and one that has been a possession black hole when its bottom two lines are on the ice.
Entering Monday’s game against Colorado, the Penguins had scored 20 goals during five-on-five play (excluding empty net goals and penalty shot goals). Only four of them came with their bottom two lines on the ice, and three of those came over the first two games. They have been virtually invisible since.
The issue is not so much that the bottom six is not scoring goals. No team should be relying on their third or fourth line to carry the offense, or even match what the top two lines are doing. Their main job is typically to play a sound defensive game and be able to pitch in with enough offense that they are not a drain on the team.
That being said, the concern with the Penguins right now is that their bottom six has been dominated in the possession battle, showing little ability to get out of its own end of the ice. It has not resulted in a ton of goals against, but it seems as if they are playing with fire at times, given how badly Pittsburgh gets outshot with them on the ice, and how often they get pinned in their own zone.
Through their first eight games, the Penguins have seven forwards (including Engelland) that have posted Corsi percentages of 46% or less:
While it is still early in the season, with a relatively small sample of games, none of the players on this list are known for being strong possession players, and none have much offensive upside. It is also important to mention that some of this (namely the Zolnierczyk and Engelland experiments) has been necessitated by the injuries to Neal and Bennett, forcing some players to play up in the lineup in roles they are clearly not suited for.
Teams like the Penguins need to find bargains in free agency, as well as have players ready to step in from the farm system to help round out the roster on the cheap. That second point has also been a bit of a problem for the Penguins in recent years. While they boast one of the most impressive collections of defensive prospects in the league, their forward pool is much shallower. Since 2007, the Penguins have drafted just one forward that has appeared in more than 35 NHL games for them, Dustin Jeffrey, a player who has been relegated to healthy scratch status for much of the season. That is how you have to end up using Tanner Glass and Craig Adams on your third line when a couple of forwards are injured.
So is there more help coming? Given the Penguins’ cap situation, a trade is going to be difficult, and the minor league options are not exactly exciting.
Getting a healthy James Neal and Beau Bennett back would allow them to either place the latter on the third line alongside Brandon Sutter, or drop the criminally underrated Jussi Jokinen down to the third line. Acquiring Jokinen was the most overlooked of their four big moves at last year’s trade deadline (the others being Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray), but it has turned out to be the most useful. Not only is he the only one still left on the roster, but he gives the Penguins a talented forward who can play both center and wing, help drive possession, and also score. Even better for the Penguins, Carolina retained $900,000 of his cap hit.
Whether the Penguins use Jokinen on the second line and use Bennett on the third, or vice versa, it adds a ton of skill to a third line that is currently lacking it.
Another name that has been overlooked is the debut of free agent signing Matt D’Agostini, who has yet to appear in a game this season due a lower body injury. Outside of a 20-goal season a couple of years ago, he has not shown a ton of offensive potential, but he has typically been a strong possession player.
A potential third line of Jokinen, Sutter, and D’Agostini seems infinitely more potent than their current options. It is just a matter of waiting for it to finally happen.
Adam Gretz has covered the NHL for AOL, CBS Sports, SB Nation, and Hockey Prospectus, and he was a contributor to the Hockey Prospectus 2013-14 annual.
Follow Adam on Twitter at @AGretz.