Pittsburgh Penguins’ Midseason Slump Reaffirms Second-Tier Status


Feb 1, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo (41) checks Nashville Predators center Filip Forsberg (9) during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Predators won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Even the best teams can go through slumps.

As a prime example, the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, perhaps the finest NHL team of the past decade, suffered through a 1-8-2 stretch in February of that season. Of course, they went on to recover quite nicely, finishing with a 54-21-7 record and eventually a Stanley Cup title.

Back to the current day, the Chicago Blackhawks – considered to be a favorite to make another deep playoff run at the very least – have gone 6-8 since the calendar turned to 2015. However, I wouldn’t consider this slide to be an indication of anything besides how difficult it is to remain consistent over an 82-game season.

On the other hand, I will admit the Pittsburgh Penguins’ six-week stagnation raises concerns. The Pens (28-14-8, 64 points) have won just six of their past 17 games (6-7-4) since taking three in a row in mid-December.

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The Penguins can’t match the recent postseason pedigree of the Hawks, so they lack the benefit of the doubt that their brethren in Chicago might get. Additionally, dropping a pair of 4-0 decisions in lifeless fashion over the past week doesn’t help in the perception department.

Moreover, certain aspects of the Pens’ play trigger alarm bells. Brandon Sutter‘s replacement-level production in past months reminds that the days of the “three-center model” in Pittsburgh are long gone. Barring more trades, the Pens will go where Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will take them, with little support coming from the bottom two lines.

The decline of Chris Kunitz and the continued struggles of Beau Bennett to harness his offensive potential make the Pens look like a shallow team up front. Adding David Perron has been a godsend, but even with him, Pittsburgh has four legitimate top-six forwards, counting the bullish Patric Hornqvist among that group.

Defensively, the team is more solid, although the presence of Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and perhaps Derrick Pouliot come playoff time means that the leadership load will weigh heavily on Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Christian Ehrhoff.

Then there’s the case of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The 30-year-old was on pace for his best statistical season as an NHLer, but a recent downturn has dropped him just a bit off that pace.

To be clear, I don’t see Fleury as a liability, but with the team’s unimpressive offensive depth, he will likely have to be at his absolute best if the Pens have hopes of winning a couple playoff series.

There’s still a good chance that general manager Jim Rutherford further supplements the roster with another deal or two prior to the March 2 trade deadline. At the same time, it’s apparent that his predecessor’s lack of success drafting forwards has virtually guaranteed that the Penguins are a two-line team come springtime.

If Crosby and Malkin perform at elite levels, it could still work out. But for now, it seems clear that the Pens are a step below the serious Stanley Cup contenders, even in a wide-open Eastern Conference.