The internet is awash with overzealous fans and writers who all seem to have the perfect solution for the Pittsburgh Penguins woes.
So my question to all of these pundits is: What exactly was the Penguins' problem last season?
Lack of a Scoring Line Winger?
Fans have been screaming over the last three years for a winger with a decent scoring touch to grace Crosby and Malkins’ respective lines. Of last season’s top four, Guerin has aged well, but still has lost a step. Kunitz is a decent top four winger when he isn’t hurt. And then there are the stop gaps in Fedotenko and the Dupuis/Talbot committee. Now, for a first and second line to perform its role in the NHL, they’re supposed to, well, score. Following is a list of the goal totals for the top six regulars:
Malkin—28 (67 games)
Kunitz—13 (50 games)
That totals 144 goals, about 57 percent of their total for the year. The Penguins actually ranked fifth in G/G, behind the likes of Washington, Vancouver, Chicago and San Jose, so it’s not as if they weren’t scoring. Of those four teams in front, the percent of goals scored by the top two lines (in some cases where I wasn’t sure which players were top six forwards I just chose the players with the highest goal total, so if anything these estimations are a little high) were about 64 percent, 65 percent, 56 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
The Blackhawks, at 56 percent, won the Stanley Cup. They are probably the team that best compares to the Pens, as they are blessed with exceptional depth throughout their lineup. Their top six scorers (Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Brouwer and Versteeg) accounted for 146 total goals, a mere two goals more than the Pens, and likely overstated due to line configurations. The Red Wings were also well known for the depth of their lineup, as were the Flyers. There must be something to the formula if the most recent cup finalists were all noted to have exceptional depth.
The gap between the Pens and the other three teams really isn’t all that big, especially when you consider that the Penguins are unique in that they put a third line on the ice that accounted for 20 percent of the team’s scoring. Jordan Staal (21), Matt Cooke (15) and Tyler Kennedy (13) were all regular contributors on the offensive end of the ice, while also often being counted upon to match up against the opposing team’s top line. When a team can consistently put three lines on the ice that are threats to score each and every time, it can wear down opposing teams.
Moreover, two of the Penguins top six forwards who were expected to contribute more on the offensive end missed games due to injury. Malkin missed 15 games while Kunitz missed 32 and likely played most of the other 50 injured. With their G/G rate, had they both played 82 games, the total percentage of goals scored by the top two lines would have risen to about 63 percent, right in line with the other top four scoring teams.
Case in point, I don’t understand the constant grumblings for better wingers. Sure, they would be nice to have, but Ray Shero has a philosophy that puts more value down the middle ice, and I think that two cup finals appearances in two years and one championship makes it a winning formula. Moreover, the fact is that Crosby and Malkin are paid to score a lot of goals, and both have shown that they can do it, even without quality wingers. It's just been shown that the Pens top two lines are scoring at a comparable rate with the other top teams in the league. It’s not worth gutting the roster for a scoring winger or two when the team is already fifth in G/G and boasts the kind of depth needed to win championships.
Wow. The guy goes from savior a mere year ago to the dog house after one subpar season that still saw him put up 1.15 P/G (good for seventh in the league). It's true that by his standards he had a bit of an off year, but he still put up points at a better rate than stars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlav.
I’m curious to know what people actually think we could get for him anyway. Certainly not his market value. There is a reason why so few blockbuster deals have gone down in the past decade for players still under contract. The Pens would have to acquire a top pick, a top player, and a top prospect or two for a player of Malkin’s ability. Teams just aren’t willing to gut their roster and farm system for a single player. A month ago I would have pointed out the Flyers and Chris Pronger as a prime example, but they have me eating my words and the Flyers have never exactly been orthodox about how they manage their roster.
Regardless, I just don’t see the sense in dealing someone like Malkin. It’s possible that the Pens could walk away a better or deeper team if they could even find a trade partner, but as a fan I don’t want to see Malkin go. He may have to a few years down the road when he, Crosby and Staal are all up for new contracts, but for the meantime I’d like to enjoy watching him play in a Penguins sweater. I think that Pittsburgh's success over the past few years speaks volumes about his value to the team and fans shouldn't be so quick to dismiss him after one down year.
The Real Problem with the Penguins
A little thing called probability and the other 29 teams that want to win the cup. You can’t win it every year, especially in the salary cap era. A dynasty will only last as long as a team can keep its young core together; the parity in this league is just too great. Just look at the resurgence a number of teams have made over the last five years: The Pens, Capitals, Blackhawks were all brutal clubs that were fortunate to draft high and obtain a young nucleus of stars to build around. Several teams now such as the Lightning, Islanders and Oilers are beneficiaries of poor play since the lockout and will have young cores of their own to lead them in upcoming years. Then there are teams like the Sabres, Kings and Coyotes that have been able to put together some outstanding seasons.
The Penguins lost in the second round to a very unconventional team. It happens, but they’ll recover and come back ready to play next season. Pittsburghers have been spoiled the last five years with two Superbowl wins and going one for two in the Stanley Cup Finals. Everyone who has been experiencing brain seizures after the playoff loss needs to just take a step back and examine the situation. We are fortunate enough to have a strong nucleus signed for the foreseeable future and there is no reason to believe that the Penguins won’t be championship contenders again in upcoming years. I for one am content to abide by the old maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."