5 areas Penguins need to improve to be contenders again
Sitting in his locker stall moments after his team was swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin said it was difficult for him to talk about how the team needed to improve to regain its championship form.
He then proceeded to do a pretty good job of it.
On team speed: “If we’re fast enough, we win the game. They score two-on-one like every game. We need to be faster for sure. We’re not slow, but if you want to win, you need to be one step forward.”
On tactical changes: “I think everyone, coaches, we think maybe we change the system a little bit. Maybe we change the power-play system, too.”
On the inevitable personnel moves that are coming: “You can’t change the whole team. You can’t change 10 players. Of course he can change a couple.”
Expanding on Malkin’s comments, here’s a look at five areas the Penguins need to improve in the offseason.
1. Defend better
In the days around the trade deadline — a period of time when Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin were injured and Erik Gudbranson was acquired from Vancouver — it looked like the Penguins had discovered something defensively. Before Feb. 25, they were 20th in the league in goals against (3.11 per game). Afterward, they were downright stingy, ranking fourth in goals against (2.25).
That was fool’s gold, though. It was accomplished at the expense of their offense, which dipped to 17th best in the league during the stretch.
To really fix their defensive issues, the Penguins can’t pack it in and rely on shot-blocking and goaltending. That approach won’t fit their roster no matter how many trades general manager Jim Rutherford makes in the offseason.
For the Penguins, the best defense is possessing the puck. They were 15th in the league in even-strength shot-attempt percentage. Improving that figure is key.
2. Get faster
With each candle the team’s stars add to their birthday cakes, the Penguins will get incrementally slower. That’s a fact of life that can’t be changed. But there is something that can.
The Penguins emerged from a six-year championship drought by adding speed. Over the past year or two, Rutherford has taken the opposite approach, especially on defense. If Rutherford keeps team speed in mind every time he makes a move this offseason, it really could help.
3. Coach better
In his four years with the Penguins, Mike Sullivan has shown a willingness to explore what’s going on around the league and adopt some of the best practices for his own team.
After watching his players run into the same Barry Trotz-built brick wall for two straight playoff series, he will need a dose of innovation this summer.
4. More power
The Penguins finished fifth in the league with a 24.6% success rate on the power play. That only masks some problems.
The 15 short-handed goals they allowed were tied for tops in the league, and they went 1 for 11 in the Islanders series. The talent is there, of course. Some tactical changes, especially on the breakout, seem overdue.
5. Minimize mistakes
The biggest problems the Penguins dealt with this season — short-handed goals allowed, overtime losses in the regular season, turnovers against the Islanders — stem mostly from good players making bad decisions at key times.
Did these players suddenly become dopes in the two years since their most recent Stanley Cup parade? Of course not. Players make more bad decisions when they are put under more pressure. Mistakes are more memorable when there are fewer positive developments to overshadow them.
If the Penguins can fix some of the systemic problems Malkin pointed out, here’s betting their players once again will appear sharp as a tack.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .