The Face(s) of the Penguins’ Struggles

Why have the Penguins struggled so mightily since August? (photo via NHL.com)

Why have the Penguins struggled so mightily since December? (photo via NHL.com)

By: Jim Meinecke

Many reasons have been thrown around recently why the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins have fallen from grace. Mike Johnston with a brand new coaching staff and system, and of course, the possibility he may be over his head at this level. Sidney Crosby having a “down” year. A bottom-six that was thought to be improved, but by most statistics is just as bad as last season. A struggling Chris Kunitz or Blake Comeau. Some injuries to the top-six including Patric Hornqvist and Evgeni Malkin at times. While all of these have merit, I believe the biggest reason the Penguins have struggled in the second half of the season is getting overlooked much of the time. I think injuries to the blue line and blue line depth are the main culprit for the Penguins slide. What was once a point of depth to start the season has quickly become a sore spot.


Started From the Top Now They Are Here

The Penguins opening night roster on defense looked like this:

1st Pairing: Kris Letang – Paul Martin

2nd Pairing: Christian Ehrhoff – Olli Maatta

3rd Pairing: Simon Despres – Rob Scuderi

That is a solid group from top to bottom. Kris Letang and Paul Martin were the workhorses and were matched up against the top units. Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta could be a 1st pairing on a lot of teams. It is a good balance of skating, offense, but defensive awareness as well. Much of the reason for Rob Scuderi’s resurgence at the beginning of the season was because the coaching staff could limit his minutes in a bottom pairing role. He was and is still able to thrive in this role because he is no longer capable of logging 1st pairing minutes due to his age. It also helped to have a strong skater in Simon Despres to be able to skate out of and away from situations

Here was the Penguins defensive roster from Tuesday night’s game at Ottawa:

1st Pairing: Paul Martin – Ben Lovejoy

2nd Pairing: Rob Scuderi – Ian Cole

3rd Pairing: Taylor Chorney – Derrick Pouliot

I will get into some numbers and statistics here shortly, but just look at the difference even on paper between these two defensive groups. Paul Martin is the only remaining top four defensemen from the beginning of the year. Ben Lovejoy, Rob Scuderi, and Ian Cole are in positions they are not comfortable playing. Taylor Chorney should not be playing in the NHL, but to his credit, he has filled in admirably. Derrick Pouliot will be great someday, but he is still very raw. We have seen games where he has dominated and other games where he has been a turnover machine and the cause for great scoring chances against. It is part of the reason a team that has been near the top of the league for much of the season in GAA is struggling as of late. In their last five games, the Pens GAA is 3.8 (1-3-1), and in their last ten games it is 3.2 (3-5-2).

Seeing Red

A visual of when Letang, Ehrhoff, and Maatta have been injured this season

A visual of when Letang, Ehrhoff, and Maatta have been injured this season

Here are some statistics from the above image:

  • The Penguins are 4-4-3 (.400 win %) without Kris Letang this season. They are 15-12-4 (.484 win %) without Christian Ehrhoff, and they are 29-21-10 (.483 win %) without Olli Maatta.
  • They are 0-0-2 (.000 win %) without Letang and Maatta.
  • They are 14-9-3 (.538 win %) without Ehrhoff and Maatta.
  • They are 1-3-1 (.200 win %) without all three in the lineup.
  • When the three were healthy together (only 16 games), the Pens went 10-4-2 (.625 win %).
  • GAA without Kris Letang in the lineup are 3.0. GAA without Christian Ehrhoff in the lineup are 2.61. Games when both have been out have raised the GAA to 3.8.

It’s hard to win games when three of your top four defensemen are injured. Folks that say injuries are just an excuse don’t realize this is an excuse for any team in the NHL. Even with a club like the Penguins that had a lot of defensive depth, it is hard to sustain momentum losing that kind of production and ability to skate away from pressure in their own end. It is probably more glaring for the Penguins because that is one trait all of these guys possess – strong skating. Many of the situations seen recently where the puck has been turned over in the Penguins’ own end or at the blue line were avoided earlier this season due in large part to the ability to skate away from some of the pressure. At this point, teams know they can cheat and throw an extra forward on a forecheck and Rob Scuderi or Ben Lovejoy will not make them pay with an odd man rush. This is a hugely understated effect to the loss of these three.


The Domino Effect

When a team loses three of its top four defensemen, there will be an obvious ripple effect throughout the lineup:

Pretty easy to see that folks are not playing in positions they should be

Take a glance at the above graphic and it is a glaring indictment to this team’s recent woes. Paul Martin is the only one who has maintained 1st pairing time-on-ice throughout the season. Rob Scuderi has moved from 16.35/game in October to 21.77/game in April. That’s a jump from 3rd pairing minutes to 1st/2nd pairing minutes. Ian Cole has played well since coming here from St. Louis, but he is 2nd/3rd pairing defensemen getting 1st/2nd pairing minutes as he’s jumped from 16.35/game in October to 20.77 in April. Ben Lovejoy has been the most noticeable defensemen recently, and not in a good way. In his defense, he is definitely playing WAY over his head minutes-wise. He is receiving Kris Letang-type minutes on a 1st pairing at 24.82/game in April, when he is a 2nd/3rd pairing defensemen who played 17.94/game in October. Not to mention all of this has been magnified due to injuries and cap restraints that have forced the team to play with only five defensemen at times. It is not an excuse to continually blow leads, but it is a reason why it happens and why these guys are gassed at the end of games.


Looking Ahead

The only bright spot in this whole thing is that the Penguins are still alive for the playoffs. No matter how miserable they have looked recently or how lost they have been for the past month, they still have a chance to dance. If Christian Ehrhoff can go this Friday and Saturday, it would be a huge lift to a defensive unit that has been decimated with injuries. If the Penguins can hang on long enough to get Kris Letang back and only be down one of their starting top-four defensemen from the start of the season, I believe the Penguins can still surprise some folks this postseason. With a favorable draw against Atlantic division foes likely on the horizon, it’s very possible this team could sneak their way to the Eastern Conference Final. It sounds silly, and it is definitely a longshot, but the defense matters that much to this team.

JimTweets


Enjoy the last couple of games and thanks for reading throughout the season.