Pittsburgh Penguins

Evaluating the Penguins Offensive Struggles

(Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Raise your hand if you thought that the Pittsburgh Penguins would struggle scoring goals after trading for the goal scoring wing Phil Kessel.

Prior to the start of the season, the common topic of discussion was how many goals would Kessel score as a Penguin. Well, 17 games into the 2015-16 NHL season and the Penguins have the fifth worst offense with only 35 goals scored. The league leader is the Montreal Canadians with 62 goals scored.

A roster with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Kessel should not have trouble scoring goals. With the talent the Penguins have, they should have issues defending and not attacking.

What is wrong with the Penguins?

There are two common groups of thought.

The first believes that the players are simply not playing to their potential and the main target is their captain, Crosby. He might be the team’s third-leading scorer with nine points (two goals, seven assists), but he’s not producing like we’re used to seeing. But he’s not the only player under fire as Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, David Perron and Letang are all struggling to put up points.

Now the second viewpoint is very different, placing the blame on head coach Mike Johnston’s system for the lack of offense. At the start of last season, the Penguins were an offensive juggernaut and many praised Johnston’s up-tempo puck possession system. They were so deadly that their power play was operating at nearly 50% for the first half of the season. But the success would not last as they finished the season with this same problem.

With both of the main viewpoints discussed, where does fault lie?

Well there’s the obvious notion that Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Kessel aren’t in their early 20’s anymore. And there is some merit to that, usually NHL players peak in their early-mid 20’s, but their decline is not normally so rapid.

There is plenty of blame to put on the players themselves, but they’re not the main culprit of the lack of scoring. Sure, the Penguins power play has not been very good as they’re 27th in the NHL with a conversion rate of 13.0%. Again, some of this is the players’ fault as there are countless times where the stars pass the puck too much while looking for a highlight reel goal, but the blame goes back to Johnston.

Pittsburgh hired Rick Tocchet to coach special teams, but there have been reports that Tocchet doesn’t command the power play and Johnston has taken it over.

At the start of last season, Johnston’s system was up-tempo and a puck possession system. The system was simplistic but effective. However, since it was simple, other NHL teams were able to adapt and shutdown the Penguins starts, see the end of the 2014-15 season.

In response Johnston has altered his system, and not in a good way. They’re playing a dump and chase system right now, and dump and chase is not an effective way to create scoring chances. In fact, an MIT paper proved that carrying the puck into the offensive zone is nearly twice as effective as dumping it in in terms of scoring chances created.

The Penguins are trying to play a game that they’re not designed to play. In addition to the dump and chase offense, centers are being asked to play deeper in the defensive zone and forwards rarely carry the puck out of the defensive zone. It’s one thing to want defensemen to jump into offensive play, but it’s another to rely upon them to carry the puck out of the zone.

Pittsburgh is struggling and Johnston knows it. He’s shown that he’s capable of adapting, much more so than former coach Dan Bylsma, but it’s time he does just that. Crosby and Malkin have too much offensive talent to be used as grinders who dump and chase pucks. They need to be allowed encouraged to drive the puck up the center of the ice and utilize their abilities.

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