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Trending Topics: Figuring out the Penguins' up-and-down season

The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t looking like two-time defending Stanley Cup champions right now. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In terms of standings points per game, the two-time (two-time) reigning Stanley Cup champions aren’t exactly in great shape.

Not that it’s bad shape, but only being 12th in the league, seventh in the conference, and fourth in the division isn’t necessarily where most people had the Pens going into the season. Even if you didn’t think they’d make it a three-peat, you had to recognize that despite some losses in the offseason and a couple obvious weaknesses, this was still an elite team in the NHL.

The results, however, just haven’t been there. That’s partly reflected in their goal difference, which was 28th in the league (minus-16) headed into Thursday’s games, but they’re still good at the process-y stuff that tends to prop up teams over the course of the full 82. Being a quarter of the way through the season and “only” being on pace for 94 or 95 points, and having solid if unspectacular underlying numbers is something most teams would love to shoot for, but this is the Mike Sullivan Penguins. And the Mike Sullivan Penguins usually play at a 110-point pace, dominate every facet of the game, and absolutely don’t have a goal difference near the bottom of the league.

So the question is: “What’s going on?”

There’s not a good answer for most of it, except to say that the Penguins have had to deal with a lot of back-to-backs with travel in between, and they don’t seem to be handling it well. They’re actually slated to play the most back-to-backs of any team in the league this season — congrats on those Cups! — and it’s been a horror show for them. In those six games on the back end of a B2B, they have a goal difference of minus-23, which means that in their 14 other games, they’re plus-seven. Which isn’t great or anything, but it’s fine.

They’re outshooting opponents in both types of games, as well, and as you might expect it’s significantly better when they’re not coming off overnight travel. Fair to say, then, that the Penguins have been exceptionally unlucky in terms of both the schedule the league gave them this year, and the fact that they can’t buy a bounce in these trips; they have an 88 PDO. Eighty-eight.

Now, it won’t — or at least shouldn’t — surprise you to learn that one of Antti Niemi or Tristan Jarry was the starter in five of those six games, and yeah that’s gonna give you a low save percentage. But in two appearances in those games, including one start, Murray is also sitting on a .750 save percentage, which even if you allow for “he’s really tired,” is lower than you should reasonably expect. When your team save percentage in those second games is .821, there’s not really a lot that can be done, except maybe stop allowing an average of 33 shots a night.

Also, you gotta look at the teams they’ve played in those games: Chicago, Tampa twice, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Nashville. Not exactly a favorable slate, especially because the teams they played before that travel were St. Louis, Washington, Florida (okay, fine), Minnesota, Edmonton and Washington again. Those are mostly teams that will take a lot out of you.

Even worse, they have to deal with Tampa like this again on the 25th, one night after playing Boston, and still have another back-to-back before the end of the year. There are another 11 left on the schedule after that as well, which is incredible.

But even leaving all that aside (and keeping your fingers crossed that Murray will get back to the .920 area if the workload gets a little easier), the Penguins have other problems. There couldn’t have been too many positives from playing 213 games over the past two years, especially because a bunch of these guys also played in the World Cup that compressed the early-season schedule last season.

Moreover, Sidney Crosby is off to one of the worst starts in his career (6-9-15 in 20 games). Maybe you say, “It happens,” and that’s true; his on-ice shooting percentage in all situations right now is just 3.7. That won’t last forever and in fact should get significantly better. Since 2007-08, the Penguins have shot 11.8 percent when Crosby was on the ice.

But difficulties putting the puck in the net isn’t just a “Crosby” problem, as you might expect. The Penguins’ 7.7 percent is the 28th shooting percentage in the league. Combine that with their .886 team save percentage, which is 30th in the league, and you see where the issue lies. No one has a lower all-situations PDO than the Pens, and they’re still comfortably in a playoff spot at the midway point of November.

Again, the Penguins have roster problems. They entered the season without a No. 3 center, and traded a decent middle-six winger in Scott Wilson to get a not-good bottom-six center in Riley Sheahan. Their defense was thinned out a bit and they didn’t really do anything to address it. The problems with the backup goalie are self-evident, and made worse with Matt Murray playing well below the standard he previously established.

That’s a clear failing of the general manager, but also the price you pay for winning two Cups and having to pay guys. There’s a lot of hard miles here, and the fact that Sullivan has this team performing even somewhat like a top-10 team is pretty remarkable, all things considered.

One has to wonder, then, if things get better or worse from here. Obviously the PDO thing is going to sort itself out in the long run, but if we’re attributing some of the issues to wear and tear, how does that affect the team after another six, seven, eight back-to-backs in addition to the other 60-plus games they’re going to have to play?

I don’t think there are any good answers to those questions, certainly not for the team itself, but whatever happens to them, it’s pretty easy to understand how things have gone a little bit sideways, and speaks to the team’s quality, that they’re not worse off.

It’s almost like they’re good enough to win two straight Stanley Cups. Weird.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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