What Went Right and What Went Wrong for the Penguins (So Far)

Danton Heinen, Jason Zucker, and Drew O’Connor celebrate a goal scored against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

(Fred Vuich//AP)

Danton Heinen, Jason Zucker, and Drew O’Connor celebrate a goal scored against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Things are not going well. After a few defying reality games, injuries and COVID-19 outbreaks have taken their toll on the Penguins’ on-ice play. Pittsburgh is currently 6-6-4, with only 16 points, placing them in 7th place in the highly contested Metropolitan Division. 

The Penguins have struggled without stars like Sidney Crosby (who has only played 4 games so far this season) and Evgeni Malkin (who is still out long-term). Head coach Mike Sullivan has also missed time behind the bench, forcing assistant coach Todd Reirden to be the head coach for 6 games. 

The players on the ice have struggled greatly. The Penguin’s only 6 wins in the first 16 games of the year are yet another slow-starting season. Despite having an 8 game homestand at the beginning of the season and boasting one of the best home records in the NHL in recent years, the Penguins only went 3-4-1 during that stretch. 

Let us take a look at what is going right and what is going wrong. 


What Went Right: 

The Penalty Kill: The Penguins penalty kill, currently sitting at 88.1% is third in the NHL, and has played pretty well so

Evan Rodrigues celebrates a goal (Joe Sargent)

far to start the season. Prior to last weekend, the Penguins penalty kill was first in the league but took a beating after giving up 2 power-play goals in a 6-3 loss to Ottawa and another in a 6-1 loss to Washington. A succeeding penalty kill unit is important not only for keeping the puck out of the net but also for momentum after the penalty is killed. The Penguins, for the most part, have been up to the challenge. 

Jeff Carter: This team would be in a much worse spot were it not for Jeff Carter. In the absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Carter had been thrown into the role of the first-line center. And he has excelled. In twelve games, he has three goals and four assists for seven points. He single-handedly brought the Penguins down from 2-0 in the 3rd period against Chicago, scoring two goals to force the game to extra time. 

The Free Agent Signings: While it was not earth-shattering news when Danton Heinen and Brock McGinn were signed at the time, they were expected to take on big roles. Heinen has proved to be a versatile player, playing up and down the lineup, filling in adequately wherever the Penguins needed. 

McGinn, to his credit, has three goals and three assists and has successfully brought an edge and energy to the Penguins lineup. McGinn has done what he was brought in to do: be the new Brandon Tanev. 

Non-shootout Tristan Jarry: Coming off of an offseason filled with criticism following his playoff collapse last year, Jarry has stormed back, posting a 91.7% (0.922) save and 2.33 goals-against average. Jarry has all six wins so far this season, going 6-4-3 in the thirteen games. His plays often allowed the Penguins to stay in games unless it was in the shootout.

Evan Rodrigues: Despite many players struggling, Evan Rodrigues is doing the exact opposite. He is tied for the most goals on the team (6) and is second on the team in points (11). Rodrigues has also been able to do it no matter where he plays in the lineup. He was a good fill-in on the first line, as well as slotting in on the second and third lines to score. 


What Went Wrong:

The Power Play: The Penguins’ power play is dead last in the NHL, at 11.8%. They have also given up two shorthanded goals, including one while getting pummelled 6-1 by the Capitals. Most of the blame likely falls on key players being out of the lineup for large periods of time. However, the Penguins are not going to get very far this season if they cannot make teams pay on the scoreboard for taking penalties. As the Penguins continue to get healthier, their power play numbers improve-but they are absolutely abysmal right now.

COVID-19: Despite the Penguins reporting a 100% vaccination rate for players in their organization, the team has been plagued with numerous COVID-19 cases and exposures. In total, all of the following players have missed at least one game due to COVID-19 safety protocol: 

Sidney Crosby

Jeff Carter

Kris Letang

Brian Dumoulin

Chad Ruhwedel

Marcus Pettersson

Jake Guentzel

Zach Aston-Reese

Tristan Jarry

In addition, head coach Mike Sullivan has missed games due to COVID-19 protocol. This forced assistant coach Todd Reirden to take over in the interim. This has hurt the team’s on-ice performance and will take its toll on the Penguins’ playoff hopes if it continues. 

Tristan Jarry In Shootouts: The Penguins lead the league in overtime/shootout losses, with four. Three of those have come in the shootout, where Tristan Jarry’s ability to perform seems to disappear. Jarry has allowed seven of the ten shots he faced. Prior to Pittsburgh’s shootout win against Florida, Jarry ranked among the worst in NHL history (since the shootout was introduced during the 2005-2006 season). 

None of that is to discredit the fact he was able to shut down the high-powered offense that the Panthers boast. However, time will tell if that kind of play is sustainable for Jarry. 

Casey DeSmith: While it is a small sample size, only 3 games, DeSmith so far has an 85.6% (.856) save percentage and a 4.72 goals-against average, among the worst stats in the league. DeSmith has had the unfortunate luck of playing against some stellar opponents). However, the Penguins need a backup who can be trusted to keep the Penguins in games, and they are not getting that from DeSmith right now. 

Defense: The Penguins have given up 48 goals so far this season, 20th in the league. The Penguins defense core has not been immune to the COVID-19 cases and exposures and injury. The forced adjustments have caused the Penguin’s defense to struggle.


What’s Next?

Slow starts are common for the Penguins in recent years, with a lot of growing pains in the first month. This season has been especially rough, and the Penguins have a lot of work to do.

With Sidney Crosby and Brian Dumoulin back in the lineup, one would expect improvement soon. The Penguins did pick up a 6-0 in Montreal, but the Canadiens 4-13-2 (10 points) were not necessarily a high-level challenge. The Penguins will have a much tougher challenge in Toronto, which is 12-5-1 (25 points). 

The Penguins have a lot of away games coming up, which makes a much-needed turnaround harder to kick off. But if Crosby can continue to get up to speed, if the defense can improve, if the power play can score goals, if the backup goaltending can improve or change, and COVID-19 exposures can be minimized, the Penguins can rescue their season. 

This is still a Penguins team with a core that knows how to win. Now, it is a matter of actually doing it.