31 Takes: Penguins quietly putting together great season

Ryan Lambert
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 28: Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his goal with teammates during the third period against the Nashville Predators at PPG PAINTS Arena on December 28, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Penguins are quietly making things happen. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Sidney Crosby: Out 21 games. Evgeni Malkin: Out 13 games. Kris Letang: Out eight games. Patric Hornqvist: Out 17 games. Bryan Rust: Out 14 games. Justin Schultz: Out 11 games. Brian Dumoulin: Out 15 games. Nick Bjugstad: Out 28 games.

That’s a lot of man-games lost to injury for the bottom of the lineup, let alone the guys who were supposed to help the Penguins have a return to form after what they considered a so-so 100-point season last year.

There were big changes in the summer and an increased sense that the window might be closing as the Crosby-Malkin-Letang trio hit 32 and 33 years old. But despite aging curves, despite injuries, despite another strong year for the division as a whole, the Penguins look like, well, the Penguins.

It’s not just that they’re winning, which they’re certainly doing — they have the highest points percentage in the league — it’s that they’re playing spectacular hockey. At 5-on-5, they have the second-best expected-goal percentage in the league, though the first- and fourth-place teams by that metric are in their division too. And they’re different teams than the ones that are tops in points percentage.

The problem is this: While the Pens ended their narrow Saturday night win over Nashville fifth by points percentage, the first- and fourth-place teams by that metric are in their division (the Capitals and Islanders). And while they’re second in 5-on-5 xGF%, the first- and fourth-place teams by that metric are also in the Metro, and they’re different teams (the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets). All-situations xGF% has them second as well, but behind Carolina, one spot ahead of Washington, and five ahead of Columbus.

The point is that despite their overall quality, they’re in a precarious position. They were holding on to second in the division, but only just; the Islanders were back a point with two extra games in hand. Even Carolina and Philadelphia were perilously close, both within a couple of wins.

They’ve gotten big seasons from Rust (leading the team and tied for 11th in the league in WAR, despite missing 14 games) and Jared McCann in the long-term absences of Crosby and Malkin. John Marino has been a revelation on the blue line when the team really needed one.

A lot of the players who spent a good chunk of the season on the shelf have been great when healthy. Rust, Malkin, and Dumoulin stand out there. Notable by his absence is Crosby, who has been a point-a-game player this season but only has five goals on his account and his shot rate continues to decline. He also hadn’t been driving power play success at all (just 1-2-3 on the man advantage with only 10 shot attempts).

It says something about a roster and a coach that they’ve had this success without him. When Crosby — who was still the consensus No. 2 player in the world before the season started — can have probably his worst year since 2014-15, if not ever, then miss a huge chunk of the season and you’re still cruising right along near the top of the league? That’s impressive. And given that you’d probably be foolish to bet against a strong return to form for a player like this, one can only expect the Penguins to take another step.

Now granted, it’s seemed like they’ve done this a lot with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang missing significant portions of the year. They win despite the absences, which never seem to come three-at-a-time. It’s playing the season on hard mode, but they’re doing it anyway.

If they can keep this up, despite all these injuries, we need to have a serious “Sullivan for Jack Adams” discussion. He’s got them playing at a level of efficiency and quality we rarely see even for great teams, and that’s with the second-best player alive having an off year.

There’s another 45 games or so to go, but all you can do is play through the difficulties. No one’s done it better so far this year.

31 Takes

Anaheim Ducks: If you’re worried about what your future holds on the basis of whether you keep Devin Shore, I dunno. He’s fine, but...

Arizona Coyotes: Starting to think this Hall kid is pretty good.

Boston Bruins: I’m not really sure what a Team President does every day, but I guess Cam Neely is doing a good job with all of that.

Buffalo Sabres: Jeff Skinner is out a month. Brutal for a team that absolutely didn’t need the help dropping in the standings.

Calgary Flames: I guess this means the Flames won the Lucic/Neal trade? Just kidding just kidding.

Carolina Hurricanes: Well, if you’re gonna power out of a three-game losing streak in which you gave up four, eight, and five goals, beating the best team in the league 6-4 is a start.

Chicago: Dennis Gilbert is an NHLer, which is more than you can say for some of the guys on this blue line, y’know?

Colorado Avalanche: Getting Cale Makar back sure helps, but this team has other problems right now (like losing four of the last five).

Columbus Blue Jackets: You know hockey’s a weird sport when people are like, “Phew, the best team in the league finally beat the one that was like 23rd last week.”

Dallas Stars: The Stars have one regulation win in the last seven games. That’s bad.

Detroit Red Wings: The Wings have had losing streaks of eight, four, 12, and now five games so far this season. Who would have thought things could get worse after a 12-game losing streak?

Edmonton Oilers: Here it is, folks: The first “McDavid’s a big reason this team stinks” take I’ve ever seen.

Florida Panthers: It’s certainly nice that Noel Acciari is scoring lately, but I wouldn’t count on that as a going concern.

Los Angeles Kings: Gotta hope Trevor Lewis getting hurt isn’t a long-term thing, because that’s a guy whose trade value they need to increase ASAP.

Minnesota Wild: Hey now. The problem with the NHL standings is that you can have the best record in the league over a month and a half and, if you start poorly enough and have enough games go to overtime, still be a full game out of the very last playoff spot in the league.

Montreal Canadiens: Okay, when does something change for these guys? You can’t keep going forward like this, where it feels like every third loss is an awful one. Plus, they’re five points out of a playoff spot with two teams between them.

Nashville Predators: Can’t figure this team out. Should be so much better but just… isn’t?

New Jersey Devils: This Damon Severson own goal is about the worst I’ve ever seen.

New York Islanders: Look, every once in a while, everyone loses three of four, four of five, whatever. Not normally a big deal. But it’s a real cause for concern when you give up 26 goals in six games. They’ll be fine but, y’know, yikes.

New York Rangers: If you spend a couple years doing everything you can to devalue a player, I don’t know how surprised you’re allowed to be that no one is going to give you value for him.

Ottawa Senators: The Senators trading a guy … for the right reasons? Hmm, okay I guess we can try that.

Philadelphia Flyers: If there’s one team where you really don’t want to lose 6-1, it’s probably San Jose. Actually, it’s Detroit. But if there’s two teams, San Jose is probably the other one.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Kreider would be a nice little add for them.

San Jose Sharks: Ah, cool.

St. Louis Blues: It would be chill if Jake Walman could stick in the bigs. One of the more exciting and fun college players I’ve covered over the years.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The knives are out for… the goalie coach?

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs are on a 121-point pace since making the coaching change. It’ll be tough to keep that up as the injuries mount.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks are a coinflip to make the playoffs? Coulda told you that in September.

Vegas Golden Knights: It’s truly weird that Vegas is 29th in icing the puck. They do it a lot.

Washington Capitals: Imagine caring that a 34-year-old who’s played like 1,250 NHL games is going to miss an All-Star weekend. Have fun at the beach, Alex.

Winnipeg Jets: If you’re gonna lose in the division, you might as well get a point out of it.

Play of the Weekend

It’s not often you get your own rebound off someone’s face but this is a nice little goal by Mark Stone.

Gold Star Award

We simply have to respect Zach Okabe, a draft-eligible forward for St. Cloud State, who scored the first goal of his career against the best team in college hockey this year. Then he scored three more in the same game. Those four goals were on his only shot attempts of the game.

We respect you, king!!!

Minus of the Weekend

This is the McDavid take that needed to be made.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Todd Parchment” is on the case.

Price (50%), Drouin, Petry, Romanov, 1st, Poehling

Draisaitl, Bouchard, Koskinen, Russell, Gagner, 2nd , 3rd


You keep squirming and there’s going to be a bald little girl with no lollipop.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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