The Pittsburgh Penguins are 10 games into the 2023-24 NHL season and will play game 11 on Tuesday night against the Anaheim Ducks. While 10 games isn’t a huge sample size, it can at least give us an idea of what the team will look like this season, what their flaws are, where their strengths lie and what the rest of the season might look like.
So far, things have gone as expected and look very similar to what we saw for the duration of the 2022-23 season.
The top two lines are usually very good.
Power play and goal scoring go hand in hand.
There is some concern about deep scoring.
Their actual goal numbers do not match their expected goal numbers which are also among the best in the NHL.
They lost to teams they should be expected to beat.
All of that led to a 4-6-0 start, which is not exactly an encouraging start to the season. It’s also the second-worst 10-game start of Sidney Crosby’s tenure, bested only by his rookie season when they won just one of their first 10 games.
While none of this is particularly encouraging, there are at least some reasons to be optimistic that things can turn around in the short term, even more so than a 10-goal outburst on one of the NHL’s worst teams of the modern era.
Elsewhere, the Penguins seem to be stumbling into a capable third line formation with Lars Eller focusing on Radim Zohorna and Drew O’Connor. Having another line that can push play and not rely on the same top six players at the top of the lineup to provide offense is a huge improvement, and one that could have a big impact this season.
They also showed that they are at least willing to do scratch-based scratch and send Jeff Carter to the press box. It might take a year too long, but that’s better than nothing.
But there’s still a lot of work to be done to get back to the playoffs, and the slow start has put them in an extremely tough spot from a numbers perspective.
Let’s look at a real story.
Going into Tuesday’s game, the Penguins have eight points in 10 games. Assuming it will take at least 95 points (usually a safe number for a playoff spot) to earn at least a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, that means the Penguins need to collect at least 87 points in their remaining 72 games. of the season.
That would be a .604 scoring pace during Tuesday’s start.
To reach last year’s playoff minimum of 92 points, you would need a .583 mark.
Even if you wanted to set the bar even higher and be really safe, getting to 98 points (a number that would probably be enough 99 percent of the time) would require a percentage of .625 points the rest of the way.
Any of these should – emphasis on SHOULD – be a manageable number for a team with four future Hall of Famers, all of whom are still playing at a reasonably high level.
And it’s a brand the Penguins have been able to play in.
I went back and looked at all 10 game starts during the Crosby era, where the Penguins had the record at the time, and how they finished the season after the 10th game.
In 13 of the last 18 seasons the Penguins have managed a .604 points per game percentage or better over the final 72 games of the season. Even in seasons where they got off to a slow start in the first 10 games.
Which brings me to my next point – the Penguins, especially in recent years, have been playing better as the season has gone on. In each of the past four seasons the Penguins have stumbled out of the gate, posting a .600 or lower hitting percentage through the first 10 games of the season.
In each of the last 72 games their field goal percentage has been exceeded by at least .044 points. That’s a significant jump, and suggests that it often takes time for them to really ride each season.
It obviously didn’t work out last year or improve enough to get back to the playoffs – for a variety of reasons – but they’re playing at a much better pace after the 10-game mark.
Given the team’s basic numbers, and the internal development that still has to happen (Tristan Jarry has to play better; the pressure play has to be better; it seems they’ve found a third line) I think we still have reason to believe that’s possible. again. It should start happening soon.