Final Report Card for the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2013-14 Season
A half-decade ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to be on the brink of becoming a dynasty. They had just won the Stanley Cup for the first time in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era and had been to the Stanley Cup Final two consecutive seasons.
With a young, talented core group of players that was only going to get better, more Cup parades in Pittsburgh seemed like a given. A presumed result from landing top-end players like Malkin, Crosby and Kris Letang.
None of that has come to fruition though. The Chicago Blackhawks have become the NHL's most consistent franchise, while the Penguins have struggled to close out lesser teams in the playoffs. The New York Rangers became the second team in four years to return from the dead against Pittsburgh, recovering from a 3-1 deficit to win in Game 7 on the road like the Tampa Bay Lightning did in 2011.
Five consecutive tries to win the Stanley Cup since 2009, and the Penguins have been ousted by five lower-seeded teams each year. Those results are unacceptable, and changes are likely coming.
There are several tough choices that need to be made that will have an impact on the 2014-15 season—a season that will feature a new-look Penguins team, according to Dave Lozo. For now the focus remains on this past year and what went wrong.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise stated and are accurate through the end of Pittsburgh's season.
Goal scoring wasn't an issue for the Penguins during the regular season. Despite losing an NHL-high 529 man-games to injury, according to ManGamesLost.com, Pittsburgh's forwards were largely effective during the 82-game campaign.
Crosby returned to his perch as the league's premier point producer. He was the only player to break the 100-point barrier and finished 17 points ahead of second-place Ryan Getzlaf in overall scoring.
It wasn't just the Crosby show in Pittsburgh, though. As a unit, the Penguins were the fifth-best team in the NHL when it came to goal scoring, tallying an average of 2.95 goals per game. Pittsburgh finished in the middle of the pack in regards to producing shots, firing an average of 29.9 times per game.
While the goals came at a steady rate, shots and puck possession were both average. According to ExtraSkater.com, the Penguins were 16th in the NHL in Fenwick-for percentage. While sitting at the 50.2 percent mark, Pittsburgh trailed non-playoff teams like the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators and were in the same neighborhood as the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators—not exactly the cream of the NHL's possession crop.
The Penguins actually improved their possession numbers during the postseason, but that didn't translate into success against Henrik Lundqvist and a determined Rangers team.
Another strong regular season doesn't do Pittsburgh's rafters any good. As will be the norm throughout this report card, the final grade was docked due to the collapse against the Blueshirts. There wasn't enough depth to compete in the postseason, and that's an issue that Ray Shero (or whoever the new general manager ends up being) will need to address in the coming months.
Offense Final Grade: B-
What Dan Bylsma managed to do with a makeshift top-six defensive core during the regular season was spectacular. For almost the majority of the season, the Penguins were without at least one or two of their top defenders, yet they were a top-10 team in average shots against, giving up 28.8 on a nightly basis.
That was better than the Boston Bruins and in range of the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. Who knows how solid Pittsburgh's blue line would have been without a staggering number of injuries that continued to grow as the season wore on.
Matt Niskanen was Pittsburgh's healthiest defender and arguably its most surprising. He scored 46 points in 81 games played and seemingly came out of nowhere as this summer's prime free-agent defenseman. He formed a top pairing with rookie Olli Maatta as a majority of the Penguins' perceived top six missed chunks of time.
Rob Scuderi missed 29 games during the regular season. Paul Martin missed 43 and Kris Letang missed 45. Oddly, Pittsburgh's defense didn't improve as it got healthy going into the postseason. The group still allowed roughly the same number of shots against (29.2) and couldn't slow down the Rangers when it mattered most.
The Penguins saw two top-four defensemen emerge out of thin air this season, which is a positive thing. It seems unlikely that the team will be able to retain Niskanen, however, and the group didn't jell well when given the chance to do so against New York.
Defense Final Grade: B-
It's tough to imagine Marc-Andre Fleury retaining his job as Pittsburgh's No. 1 goalie following another catastrophic letdown. While "Flower" isn't the only one to blame for the Penguins' collapse, plenty of criticism will deservedly be heaped on his shoulders.
There's no way to make the facts any sweeter: Fleury couldn't provide his team with a better save percentage than .900 as it tried to close out the Rangers in Games 5, 6 and 7, and he's on the hook for that. Another playoff round lost because of a goalie that couldn't come up with the timely saves.
He posted back-to-back shutouts, sure. There's no award or advancement for stealing two games in the postseason, though. Pittsburgh needed more consistency from Fleury over the last half-decade and never got it.
Adam Proteau of The Hockey News wrote that "[w]e should also prepare to see the end of the Marc-Andre Fleury Era in Pittsburgh" when he was breaking down the aftermath of the series, and he's probably right.
Fleury was great during the regular season, but he always has been. Fleury doesn't get a pass for being steady when all that mattered were points in the standings. You can't make a case that "Flower" did anything but fail this year.
Goaltending Final Grade: F
No team in the NHL had a better power play than the Penguins during the regular season. They finished tied with the Washington Capitals with a 23.4 percent conversion rate and were able to cover up some defensive deficiencies by scoring with the extra man.
Three of the NHL's top 10 point producers with the man advantage played for Pittsburgh: Crosby was third in power-play scoring (38 points), while Malkin finished eighth (30) and James Neal locked down the 10th spot (26).
All three of those players failed to crack the top 10 during the postseason though, with Crosby finishing the highest with four points on the power play—good for 11th. It's the same question that will plague the Penguins as they gear up to make tough choices over the summer: What good is regular-season dominance when it doesn't translate to the playoffs?
Pittsburgh's penalty kill was a mess in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets and only improved once it was facing down the lackluster man advantages from the Rangers. Once the Blueshirts started moving the puck around a bit, the Penguins couldn't keep up and lost the series (in part) due to coming up empty on special teams in the final three games.
Special Teams Final Grade: C-
It's going to be hard to figure out what to do with Bylsma. He guided an incredibly banged up team to a 109-point season and a Metropolitan Division banner, but division champions aren't remembered and celebrated. Crosby and Malkin aren't in town to beat up on the weakest group of teams in hockey.
They're in Pittsburgh to win Stanley Cups. Plural, as in more than one. Since 2009, Bylsma has failed to guide the Penguins back to the Stanley Cup Final, and he hasn't won a game in the Eastern Conference Final over that same span.
Rob Rossi of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote that "Penguins ownership will consider a sweeping overhaul that could include terminating general manager Ray Shero in addition to Dan Bylsma and the members of the coaching staff...," citing sources close to the team.
Saving Bylsma after the Penguins had a meltdown against the Boston Bruins last season was one thing. Watching the team score three goals over the last three games against the Rangers will likely be enough to force Mario Lemieux and Ronald Burkle to make a change behind the bench.
Coaching Final Grade: C-
The Penguins needed to make some noise in the playoffs this year. It wasn't quite Stanley Cup or bust, but bowing out in the second round after holding a 3-1 series lead certainly wasn't the way to go. A restless fanbase was looking for signs of improvement. Ditto for an ownership group that has shown a remarkable amount of patience over the last five seasons.
That patience is gone now, and the 2013-14 season is what it is for Pittsburgh: a lost opportunity to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second year in a row and to prove that the current makeup of the team could work.
Rolling changes are coming. The Stanley Cup isn't going back to the Steel City, and a Rangers team that played nine times in 14 days is heading for the NHL's version of the final four. These results aren't good enough.
Not even close.
Final Team Grade: D-