Inconsistent Penguins Go As Far As Crosby Takes Them

The Pittsburgh Penguins have struggled through their first 13 games as defending back to back Stanley Cup Champions. Many narratives have been drawn upon for why this has happened to start the season.  Whether it be a very difficult schedule, suspect goaltending, or the lasting effect of playing the most playoff games in a two year stretch in NHL history, the play on the ice is like nothing we have ever seen from this team since hiring Mike Sullivan two winters ago.

The Penguins are currently 7-5-1 which is tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference but the team has not performed like they deserve such results. Their -15 goal differential is tied for 3rd last in the entire NHL.  They have lost three separate games by at least six goals or more and have only scored three five-on-five goals in their last six games.

There are many flaws in the Penguins right now that is causing very inconsistent play, but I would like to focus in on the centerpiece of the franchise, Sidney Crosby.

Through 13 games played this year: Crosby has recorded 5 goals, 6 assists, and is a minus 8. Obviously, this is not similar to the usual standards he has set for himself leading the NHL in points per game 7 seasons of his 12 year career.

Let’s take a look at some of the main reasons I have noticed for the drop in Crosby’s production early this season.

The Breakout

The Penguins have been absolutely atrocious in their own end this year.  There have already been multiple injuries to the blue line as well as Kris Letang underperforming as he finds his game after months off due to neck surgery.  Under these circumstances, the defense has been very challenged moving the puck out of the zone.  This has caused many forwards to help out in the defensive zone leaving very little time to create offense up ice.

Specifically, this has hindered Crosby’s ability to make plays off the rush.  Many shifts have been wasted for the top line battling in their own zone.  Once they are getting the puck, Crosby and linemates Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary are no longer looking to beat defenders with their patented passing plays, but only to dump the puck in change to set up the next shift.

With very little coming off the rush, the line has also struggled to sustain any consistent pressure in the offensive zone.  Crosby, commonly referred to as the best grinder of all time, has not had any chances to do what he is best at, cycling the puck below the goal line.  All of this has resulted with Crosby only producing 1 goal and 5 points at 5-on-5 this season. While we all expect the stats to improve due to a few bounces and his shooting percentage approaching career norms, it may be more than just getting unlucky.  Crosby’s corsi for of 49.4 is far underwhelming what we expect from the best player in the world and is a cause for concern amongst Penguin fans as nothing suggests Sid’s production will turn around without a complete revamp in the team’s play.

Lack Of Depth

The Penguins are very happy to get Letang back for this season but besides him, it is not hard to see how the roster has been depleted from their Championship rosters.  Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, and four time Stanley Cup champion Chris Kunitz were all lost in free agency over the off-season. This has left many holes in the forward line-up that still have yet to be appropriately filled by General Manager Jim Rutherford.

Riley Sheahan, 2 goals in 80 games last season, is now the Penguin’s best center behind their franchise centers.  The bottom six lacks any offensive talent and can barely sustain any zone pressure. They lose any puck control the top lines have established making the lives of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin unnecessarily difficult.

To this point, this team parallels the makeup of the disappointing Penguins teams from 2013-15 that had zero secondary scoring relying solely on their superstars to carry them.  While Crosby won the Art Ross in 2014 under these circumstances, it is no longer ideal after back to back shortened summers and exhausting battles in the playoffs.  

Intensity

The above topics create excuses for why Sid has not been performing, but there’s no bigger reason than Sid himself.  Through 13 games, he has not looked consistently locked in mentally or physically.  Again this could be seen as consequence of just being tired after the past two cup runs but to some extent it has been unacceptable.  

Crosby is second on the Pens with 28 PIMs, only behind Ryan Reaves who has 3 fighting majors.

He has been very lackluster in the defensive zone leading to the worst plus-minus rating of his career.

While there has been very little open space due to the lack of breakout, Sid has turned down many opportunities to skate the puck.  Sid is at his best when he looks to attack and right now he looks about as passive as he ever has in a Penguin uniform.

I am not here to pull a Jeremy Roenick and question the work ethic of a hockey legend, but Sid is playing more like Jonathan Drouin than his Hall of Fame self at the moment.

To my accord, Crosby only has only played one truly complete game so far and it came in a 4-0 win against Nashville on October 7th.  Coincidentally, that was a very physical game and Sid was fully locked in after Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm took multiple runs at him in continuation of their battles last June. So does Sid need to feel danger to perform on a nightly basis? Obviously not. But with many questions about dynasties and three-peats Crosby needs to keep his mind on the game at hand night in and night out.

Outlook

This has been Crosby’s worst start to a season since 2015-16 under coach Mike Johnston.  That stretch began the narrative of Sid’s demise and had pundits like Sportsnet’s Sid Seixeiro predicting that Crosby would be outscored by prospect at the time Johnny Gaudreau. Of course Crosby finished that season as the NHL’s 3rd leading scorer as well as winning his 2nd Stanley Cup.

There are many flaws with Sid’s game right now that if they are not fixed could lead to a very disappointing season.  I wouldn’t count on it though.  

Anyone still doubting this man after back to back Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophies will just be proven wrong once again.

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