Pens Preview: Defense Needs To Improve For Penguins To Capture 3rd Cup In 4 Years

Bob Grove: If you really want to know what direction they’re heading, don’t count goals. Count goals against.

Bob Grove
October 03, 2018 - 10:16 am

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

By answering every question opponents posed for two seasons running, the Penguins earned themselves the benefit of the doubt over the course of the 2017-18 season. They were hardly consensus favorites to become the first team in more than three decades to claim three straight Cups, but few would count them out until they were, you know, out.

Now, five months after a second-round playoff exit, the Penguins are barely on the fringes of championship predictions from analysts around the league in both the U.S. and Canada. The picks du jour are Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference and either San Jose or Winnipeg in the Western Conference, with some support also shown for Toronto and Nashville.

None of this, of course, matters a bit to the suddenly under-the-radar Penguins or even any of the favorites; it’s just the conjecture that comes with every October. But there are some very real questions about just how coach Mike Sullivan’s team can get back where they were.

For me, they’re not questions about the relationship between Sullivan and Phil Kessel, who is equal parts star, enigma and everyman. Or about how it will benefit the Penguins to have had more rest over a longer summer. Or about whether Daniel Sprong will figure out how to score in the NHL, having proven those skills in the AHL. Or about where Dominik Simon really fits in and just what are realistic expectations for Bryan Rust.

These are among a number of interesting subplots we’ll monitor over the next 82 games, but for me the overriding question about the 2018-19 Penguins is simply this: can they be better defensively?

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The Penguins are spending more of their salary cap on forwards than any team in the league, and GM Jim Rutherford is getting his money’s worth of production. They’ve finished among the top three scoring teams in each of the last three seasons; they were the only team with more than one player among the top 10 scorers in the league last season (they had three); and they’re coming off a 26.2% power play performance last season, which was the best in the history of a franchise known for power play prowess.

You can worry for the next six months about how the lines are being constructed, but the reality is that Sullivan could move plenty of players around every night and the Penguins would still score. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel will ensure the Penguins get their goals, even more so if Derick Brassard plays with the energy he’s had in the preseason and Jake Guentzel finds a way to channel his playoff goal-scorer during the October-to-March grind. But they are highly unlikely to earn a third Cup in four seasons without defensive improvement.

The Penguins last season allowed 47 more goals than they did in 2015-16 before winning the Cup, an average of more than half a goal more per game that outstripped their increased offensive production. Their penalty killers went from No. 5 in 2015-16 to No. 17 last season. It’s popular to put almost all of the burden for this needed change on the shoulders of goaltender Matt Murray, who like Guentzel is in the odd position of trying to prove not his ability under the white-hot spotlight of the playoffs but his ability over the course of the regular season. But while there’s no avoiding the need for Murray to play better and more consistently, his teammates need to better support his efforts.

They need to present him with fewer high-quality scoring chances and odd-man breaks. They need to be smarter managing the puck and picking their spots to gamble. Their skills and style of play are certainly going to lead to scoring opportunities the other way, but they don’t have to wholly compromise Sullivan’s philosophy to reduce defensive risks.

One way the Penguins can do this is to turn up the volume on their back-checking and revert to their form in Sullivan’s first season behind the bench, when they swarmed the puck once they lost it. That’s not easy, but it’s also not asking them to do anything more than work harder.

The defense? Certainly Kris Letang and Justin Schultz can’t suppress their offensive instincts, but Letang in particular has to try once again to simplify his decision-making when his options are limited. The jury remains out there. Jack Johnson sometimes over-thinks things in his own zone, too, but if he can make the easy plays with regularity it will go a long way toward making him comfortable playing for a team that isn’t relying on him to put up points. And while training camp was a very small sample size, Juuso Rikkola might turn into a luxury the Penguins didn’t have a year ago – a seventh defenseman capable of challenging for playing time when everyone is healthy.

Part of the fun of watching the Penguins is marveling at the skill levels and the finishing ability. But if you really want to know what direction they’re heading in this season, don’t count goals. Count goals against.

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