After the Pittsburgh Penguins finally got on track last season and headed into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the hottest team, their biggest question mark was on defense.
Years of searching for a winger for Sidney Crosby eroded the Penguins’ blue line as Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin left for free agency. It left Pittsburgh to count on youngsters such as Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and reclamation projects like Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz.
With Kris Letang leading the way and averaging nearly 30 minutes of ice time per game, the defense actually became a strength last spring. But early in 2016-17, it’s regressed back to being the team’s biggest weakness.
Pittsburgh opened things up offensively when Mike Sullivan took over as head coach on Dec. 14, 2015. The Penguins have continued that trend this season, as they rank seventh in the league with 31.2 shots on goal per game. However, they are also giving up 33.9 shots on net per contest, which is second-most in the NHL.
Things improved slightly this week when the Penguins took on the Panthers and the Islanders, but Pittsburgh took another step backwards in the shooting categories Saturday night in Philadelphia. The Flyers recorded 42 shots on Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Penguins had just 27.
After that performance, Pittsburgh fell back to the middle of the pack and now has a 50.0 Corsi For percentage through nine games. This early in the season, teams can yo-yo quite a bit up and down the rankings with just one great or poor performance, but it’s still concerning because the Penguins were such a great possession team at the end of last season. Then, they ranked second in the league with a 52.72 Corsi For percentage.
Only the San Jose Sharks have outshot Pittsburgh at even strength early this season, but San Jose has yielded 48 fewer shot attempts.
Bad pinches and poor defensive decisions are the major reasons why the Penguins are basically trading scoring chances early this season.
Specifically on the blue line, Dumoulin and Daley, two important members of the Penguins’ resurgence on defense last spring, have Corsi For percentages well below 50. Daley owns just a 46.8 Corsi For percentage and a negative 3.2 Relative percentage, which is worst among all Penguins defensemen.
However, Ian Cole is in the same neighborhood, with a 46.7 Corsi For percentage and negative 3.1 Corsi For Relative percentage. Cole started really slowly last season too, but was able to play better, particularly on the penalty kill, during the postseason.
But the biggest concern for the Penguins’ blue line is Olli Maatta. The Finnish defenseman signed a six-year, $24.5 million extension last February. At that cap hit, he is the second-most expensive Penguins defender after Letang.
It’s important to remember that Maatta is still only 22, so he should continue to improve and develop, but by all indications, he’s regressed from his 2013-14 rookie year. He started last season strongly, but injuries slowed him down shortly after he signed that contract.
Maatta should be healthy now, though, and his play is basically the same. He pinches at the wrong time and routinely gets beat. Maatta must start playing like a top-unit defenseman at some point this season if the Penguins are to repeat.
As concerning as these problems are, any team without their top defenseman would go through similar growing pains. Letang hasn’t played since Oct. 18 against Montreal due to an upper-body injury. San Jose probably has more defensive depth, but if the Sharks were without Brent Burns, they would struggle some too.
There’s no telling how long Letang will be out, but the Penguins’ blue line will obviously be much better when he returns. Until then, they might have to outscore teams as they did Saturday versus Philadelphia.
They will also have to count upon strong goaltending to bail them out. Fleury’s numbers aren’t great, but he’s made some really stellar saves to keep Pittsburgh in games. It’s going to be interesting to see how 22-year-old Matt Murray plays behind a much weaker defense than last spring once he finally gets a start.