How Far Are the Pittsburgh Penguins from Being a Legitimate Stanley Cup Threat?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistMay 16, 2014

On Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins dismissed longtime general manager Ray Shero:

In a press conference streamed live on the team’s official website, CEO David Morehouse further announced that the search for a new general manager had already begun and that the new GM would be charged with “overseeing and revamping” hockey operations, “with the goal of returning the team to championship form.”

The question is how far from championship form the Penguins are.

As Morehouse noted, the Penguins have had their struggles, but there is also a lot for new management to build on:

It’s not just about this season. We’ve had five consecutive years of underachievement in the playoffs. However, this isn’t a complete overhaul. We’ve had success during the regular season; we have a good team. It’s a lot different than a team that needs to have a complete overhaul and a revamping, that has missed the playoffs for consecutive years… we just have high expectations and we want to get better.

What is the current state of the team?

The forwards are an interesting study, because there is such a stark contrast between the top six and everyone else. The following table shows the Penguins’ common line combinations this year with a weighted average of shot attempts for and against and goals for and against with those players on the ice:

Line-by-line statistics for Pittsburgh's forwards
Left WingCentreRight WingCorsi%Goals%
C. KunitzS. CrosbyP. Dupuis52.858.8
J. JokinenE. MalkinJ. Neal54.457.5
T. GlassB. SutterB. Gibbons43.544.5
T. PyattJ. VitaleC. Adams42.333.0
L. StempniakJ. MegnaC. Kobasew45.355.4

The Sidney Crosby line faced the toughest competition and was about 50/50 in terms of starting in the offensive or defensive zone. The Evgeni Malkin line faced the second-most difficult opponents and had more of a push in the offensive zone. The depth forwards mostly faced bottom-tier opponents and started more of their shifts in the defensive zone.

The trouble is that the bottom six is a wasteland. The Crosby and Malkin lines did their part at even-strength, but the rest of the team was a disaster. Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey has shown this to be a fairly recent trend, starting in 2012-13; before that, the Pens were actually pretty good sans Crosby/Malkin. It’s a drop-off that coincides with the departure of Jordan Staal for Carolina.

Dellow also showed that Pittsburgh’s problems in this department are basically confined to it; other contending teams with an exceptional top six don’t have a total wasteland behind those guys.

The Pens do have some help on the way, notably Beau Bennett and Oskar Sundqvist, but the team’s next general manager is going to have to find competent veterans to fill those roles immediately. Fortunately for him, almost the entire current group of lousy bottom-six forwards is bound for free agency so he won’t have trouble clearing the decks.

If we do the same exercise for the defence (tweaked a little, as the No. 7 and No. 8 defencemen didn’t play together), we get the following:

Pair-by-pair statistics for Pittsburgh's defencemen
Left DefenceRight DefenceCorsi%Goals%
B. OrpikP. Martin47.245.7
O. MaattaM. Niskanen52.058.9
R. ScuderiK. Letang46.143.1
D. Engelland*R. Bortuzzo44.745.2

Things probably aren’t as bad as they seem at first blush. Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi both suffered through significant injuries, and while Scuderi’s Corsi/goal numbers have been in trouble for a few years now Letang has been a consistent out-scorer over the last few seasons and is a good bet to recover. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, meanwhile, took on both a lot of defensive zone shifts and the toughest available competition. Finally, the pairing of Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen excelled.  

The biggest problems here are the potential pending departures of Orpik and Niskanen, as well as the three seasons left on Scuderi’s deal. If Pittsburgh can re-sign/replace the first two and convince some sucker to take on Scuderi, the team will be in good shape. Ideally, a legitimate No. 1 left-side defenceman joins the team, but that’s a pretty tall order.

Even better, the Pens have a bunch of good young defencemen on the way. Simon Despres is on the cusp (he’s a better prospect than he typically gets credit for) and that’s before even considering Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin.

There is work to be done here, but if the new general manager can tread water this group should be good enough.

The goaltending is another matter. Marc-Andre Fleury was fine in this year’s playoffs, but when Morehouse talks about years of postseason underachievement nobody fits the bill better than Fleury. Put simply: Fleury’s play has been the difference between the Penguins contending and bowing out early.

This chart compare’s Fleury’s save percentage against that of the starter on the eventual Cup-winning team:

A team can compete with good goaltending (Pittsburgh went to the Finals in 2008, Fleury’s best postseason run) or with average goaltending (the Penguins showed in 2009 in front of a mediocre Fleury), but it cannot win with the horror show that Fleury was in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Pittsburgh’s starter rebounded somewhat this year, but even so fell well short of providing elite-level netminding.

The biggest mistake made during the Penguins’ rebuild was the decision to take Fleury first overall in 2003, ahead of Eric Staal. Shero wasn’t the general manager at the time, but he doubled down on Fleury. Pittsburgh’s new GM could do himself a big favour if he sends Fleury down the line and finds someone who can provide competent playoff goaltending.

The situation in Pittsburgh is serious, but not as bad as it could be. The Penguins have two of the best forward lines in hockey, a lot of good pieces on the back end and the ability to make changes in the offseason. With a revamped bottom-six forward group, a steady hand on defence and an upgrade in the crease, there’s no reason Pittsburgh can’t be going deep into the playoffs as early as next season.


Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report; follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

All statistics courtesy of


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