Roundtable: Expanding the NHL playoff format; Penguins’ woes

Sean Leahy
NBC Sports

1. The Pittsburgh Penguins are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and things don’t appear to be getting better. Is there cause for concern or can this be chalked up to of an early-season slump?

SEAN: The Penguins can’t just say ‘Oh, well, we’ve done this before’ and expect to rally themselves into a playoff spot. They play in a competitive conference and a tough division, so digging themselves out of their current hole will not be easy. It helps when you have the talent on board that they do, but injuries and sub-par goaltending had led them to their current predicament.

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What we likely will see is another trade or two by Jim Rutherford, a GM who’s known for being aggressive well before the NHL trade deadline. This is a team that he constructed, with many pieces owners of two Stanley Cup rings. His patience is already run thin and further struggling will only see more faces shipped out of Pittsburgh in hopes of bringing in new blood.

JAMES: Look, when you’re about a quarter through a season and in last place, it’s cause for some concern.  

But there’s a difference between being concerned and panicking, and the Penguins don’t need to panic. Consider that the Penguins had 41 points in 40 games by Jan. 1, 2018, ranking them 22nd in the NHL. They waded through that wilderness, and they’ve done it before. Dan Bylsma won a Stanley Cup taking over a floundering group in-season, and Mike Sullivan did the same. Pittsburgh has experience fighting through lousy starts.  

That said, you can only beat the odds so many times, and the Penguins’ core is only getting older. They’re eventually going to fail at walking that tightrope, but I think they can bounce back, and it’s heartening to see some projections fall in line with such inklings.

ADAM: I think there is definitely cause for concern. I know they have overcome slow starts in the past, but this slow start is a heck of a loss worse than a lot of the ones they overcame. I mentioned this the other night, but the year they fired Mike Johnston they were 15-10-3 the day they made the coaching change. That was considered unacceptable and a season that was headed toward being a waste. Unless they go something like 8-1 over their next nine games they will not even reach that record. The rest of the league has caught up to them speed-wise, they look a little older, a little slower, not as deep, they have questions on defense and I’m not sure what they are going to do in net because neither Matt Murray or Casey DeSmith inspires much confidence right now. There is not really a quick and easy fix here. What they really need is another mid-season overhaul of the roster like they had in 2015-16, but that is going to be easier said than done. They can not trade the core players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang) because those players are the franchise, and the rest of the team is either a bad contract or a player that does not have a ton of trade value. 

JOEY: There should be some concern because they haven’t. been this bad as a team in quite some time, but I honestly can’t imagine Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and company missing the playoffs. They’ll struggle to get in, but in the end, they’ll be able to get it done by going on a crazy run at some point during the second half of the season. We’ve already seen GM Jim Rutherford make one trade, and I don’t think he’ll be shy about pulling the trigger again if he feels it’s necessary.

The biggest issue for the Penguins right now is the goaltending. Casey DeSmith has played well at times, but it’s time for Matt Murray to get his season back on the rails. Even with all the superstars on the roster, they still need a goalie to come up with saves at some point. I don’t think Murray will be able to be as solid as he was during those two Stanley Cup runs, but he has to be better than he is right now. The 24-year-old has a 4-5-1 record with a 4.08 goals-against-average and a .877 save percentage this season. If he can’t get the job done, Rutherford will find someone who can.

SCOTT: The Penguins have too much talent to count them out just yet. Sure, I know about the U.S. Thanksgiving curse, but not every bad team around this time of the year has a Crosby and a Malkin. 

That said, there’s more than just a slump here. There are some growing concerns. Matt Murray’s save percentage has gone from a .930 to a .923 to a .907 to .877 over the past four seasons. You don’t win with his current numbers. 

As a team, the Pens’ 5-on-5 save percentage is abysmal and they’ve allowed the second most shorthanded goals against at four. Perhaps bad luck on the last one, but breakdowns and implosions seem to be happening with greater frequency in Pittsburgh this season. 

Pittsburgh has the talent to still make the playoffs. The question now is, can they find it before it’s too late?

Getty Images
Getty Images

2. We’re at the quarter mark of the season. Which pre-season prediction are you currently regretting?

SEAN: While I can tout the Blues missing the playoffs or Mikko Rantanen as most underrated prediction, if I could go back and change one now it would be putting the Wild in the postseason. I thought Bruce Boudreau’s regular season magic would run out but his team is delivering balanced scoring and getting solid goaltending from Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. That’s all led to a second place start in the Western Conference.

JAMES: Just one? While I wonder if I was right to discount the Avalanche’s chances of backing up last season, picking the Penguins to win the Metro isn’t looking so hot right now. Like I said before, I think they have a chance of making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the most logical path would be to grab the third spot in the division, or see the Atlantic teams settle down and grab a wild-card spot.

ADAM: There are a couple, but two really stand out for me. I thought Montreal would be horrible because I hated their offseason moves. Those offseason moves, so far, are working out, especially the Max Domi addition. Did not see that performance coming at all. I was also a believer in Vegas not being a fluke, mostly because I loved the Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty additions and thought that Marc-Andre Fleury would at least be decent again. Maybe not the best hockey of his career that he played a year ago, but still pretty good. Maybe in time they will still work, especially once they get Stastny back and get Pacioretty going again, but for right now those are not looking great. 

JOEY: I said the Vegas Golden Knights were among the under appreciated teams in the NHL, and that simply hasn’t panned out to this point. Sure, they didn’t have Nate Schmidt in their lineup for the first 20 games of the season because of a suspension, and Paul Stastny’s been out with an injury, but the magic that surrounded the Golden Knights last year seems to be gone. General manager George McPhee did his best to upgrade the roster over the summer, but the Max Pacioretty acquisition hasn’t worked out well so far.

It’s still early enough that they can work themselves back into playoff contention, but teams on the outside of the playoffs at this point of the season typically don’t get in. There are some exceptions to rule, but I’m just worried that they won’t be able to recreate that “us against the other teams that let us go” mentality from last year.

I could be wrong, but it’s not looking good for this team.

SCOTT: I thought Vegas wouldn’t regress. That’s all they’ve done. I feel shame. 

3. Would you like to see the NHL expand the playoff format as was discussed on Hockey Night in Canada earlier this month?

SEAN: Why do we want to add bad teams to the playoff mix? This isn’t like the play-in games in the NCAA basketball tournament where there are so many teams in Division I that some smaller school who have good seasons may get overlooked. We don’t need 88-point teams playing a mini series to see who will get swept by the conference’s No. 1 seed.

JAMES: The NHL needs as many dramatic, made-for-TV events as it can get, so an March Madness/MLB-style wild card play-in would be GOLD, Jerry, GOLD.  Just don’t drag it out much longer than a few extra days, because the playoffs basically last longer than our natural lives at this point.

ADAM: My answer to this is always the same whenever it gets mentioned: No. Even with a 32-team league once Seattle enters you are still at half of the league making the playoffs. That is fine. That is more than enough, and you had 82-games to put yourself in a playoff position. If you are not in one by the end of the season you should not get an extra play-in game to get yourself in. The only thing I would change is the format to go back to the 1 vs. 8 matchup and then re-seed in each round instead of the divisional format we have now. 

JOEY: I don’t like it. If you’re not among the top eight teams in your conference after 82 games, you don’t deserve to have a spot in the playoffs. When it comes to adding playoff teams, my worry is always that it will diminish the value and importance of the regular season. Sure, you’ll always have playoff races, but how many teams is too many.

Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference standings from last year. The Florida Panthers missed the playoffs by a single point, which is heartbreaking for a team in a market that could have used a postseason jolt. But the gap between Florida and the 10th place team in the East (Carolina) was 13 points. Can you imagine if the Hurricanes were to get into the playoffs with 83 points, and they end up advancing because they won a short series or a one-off game in the opening round? It doesn’t make any sense. I know this is an extreme example that doesn’t happen every year, but it happened as recently as last year, which means it could happen again in the near future.

I don’t want to live in a world where a team with 83 points potentially gets a chance to play in the postseason. No way.

SCOTT: More playoff games? More seven-game series? Sign me up. 

I’m not one of those people who bemoans how long the playoffs last. If hockey was on year-round, I would watch it. Playoff hockey is the best hockey so more of it can never be a wrong move.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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