There has been a lot of discourse this season about what ails the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a summer in which they added not only one of the league’s most potent scorers but also a complementary collection of depth players to help round out their already impressive roster, expectations were justifiably sky-high.
Even if you had baked in an initial grace period for all of those pieces to come together as one, it’s tough to classify the early returns as anything short of disheartening. There’s been a monumental disconnect between the amount of firepower their roster boasts on paper and the actual output they’ve managed to generate thus far. Really, it’s to fathom that a team with this much talent could be this anemic and look this feeble, but the reality is that they’re currently scoring the fourth fewest goals per game as a unit.
As is generally the case when a team with this much hype underperforms, the brunt of the blame gets put on the shoulders of the stars. While there’s certainly at least some merit to that seeing as the boxcar stats haven’t been what we’ve come to expect from them, there appears to be a deeper rooted systemic issue with the way the Penguins have been constructed as a whole.
The dirty little secret is that the Penguins have been bleeding blue-line talent for a few years now, with the likes of Matt Niskanen, Paul Martin, and Simon Despres all having left the organization either through free agency or via trade. While it’s understandable that they balked at picking up the lucrative tabs on the first two names once they hit the market, the deadline deal that sent Despres out of town last year remains just as puzzling now as it was the moment it was announced. Those are three legitimate top-four defensemen who can contribute on both ends of the ice that they’ve yet to effectively replace to-date.
It’s showed. The Penguins have ostensibly had just one defenceman who can consistently and successfully transition the puck out of the defensive zone this season. It’s a shame that Olli Maatta suffered yet another trying setback with his health, because he’d been coming on as another option in this regard after a slow start. When I noticed how wretched they appeared in transitioning from their own end with a couple of casual viewings, I decided to follow up and track a pair of games (including the most recent shellacking in New Jersey last weekend):
It doesn’t really matter how skilled your players are up front if they can never seem to receive the puck in dangerous attacking positions. A player like Evgeni Malkin must be an absolute terror for opponents to deal with when he’s able to come through the neutral zone with a full head of steam and the puck on his stick. That luxury has been afforded to him far too sparingly in 2015-16. At this rate, he may as well have been playing on the Edmonton Oilers in the first 20 or so games of the season.
For all intents and purposes if Letang hasn’t been on the ice, the likes of Malkin and Crosby have essentially had to attempt to create everything themselves with a near 200-foot foray from their own zone. While they’re gifted enough to do so more frequently than nearly anyone else in the world it still leaves them fighting an uphill battle, and it’s ultimately a suboptimal process for the Penguins.
The times when they’ve either failed to maneuver through or watched yet another outlet pass get picked off or deflected when wobbling their way, they’ve been left chasing the puck. A ton has been made of Crosby’s lack of point production, and deservedly so. His rate of production at even strength has been cut in half from last season, and he currently sits tied for 160th in the scoring race.
The saving grace is that regardless of what’s up with him here, he figures to regress at least somewhat once he stops shooting 10% worse than his career rate and the Penguins stop inexplicably having one of the worst 4 or 5 power plays in the league. What’s maybe just as alarming however is how infrequently he’s controlled the puck when he’s been on the ice.
His current 47.7% clip is markedly lower than at any other point in his career, and a far cry from the 56.3% he checked in at just last season. His struggles in that area can be superimposed on the team as whole; their Score-Adjusted Corsi has collectively plummeted a full 5%. They’ve had control of the puck far less frequently than we’ve been accustomed to seeing, and that has manifested itself in suppressed individual shot rates for both Crosby and Malkin, amongst others.
There appear to be a couple of quick fix options right off the bat for the 5-on-5 struggles. For one, if they’re going to insist on continuing to dress this specific collection of defensemen it would certainly behoove them to utilize a more conservative breakout scheme. One in which the forwards sag back lower and provide more support, like they did in one of their rare perfectly executed zone exits in the aforementioned Devils game:
It’s not quite as alluring as the ‘home run’ approach and it may cap the pure ceiling for them, but it’s also far more likely to provide better results than what they’ve been doing up until this point. The hallmark of a good coach is being able to adjust to your personnel, putting them in the best position possible to succeed. In this case, Mike Johnston would be wise to provide more attainable alternatives to his group of blueliners like this set play from earlier in the season against the Senators, where a higher percentage pass is made available instead of everyone flying out of the zone:
Of course, the other higher upside – and potentially more sustainable long-term – option would be to experiment with the personnel itself. It’s beyond bizarre that they haven’t found a way to get Adam Clendening into the lineup on more than just the two occasions this year. You’d figure a player who paced AHL defensemen in scoring less than two seasons ago and one who Corey Pronman described as having “real standout offensive qualities as a puck mover” would be of use. It remains to be seen whether he has the foot speed to become anything more than a AAAA player, but his knack for flinging the puck around with purpose is something the Penguins could sorely use these days.
After sitting in the press box for more than a month, Clendening returned to the lineup the other night against the Wild and immediately showed what he can provide in stretching the opposing defence. The final result was a fun one.
Much of the same can be said for the crown jewel of their prospect pool, Derrick Pouliot, who continues to wait in the wings down in Wilkes-Barre. Assuming he manages to stay out of trouble, it seems like a mortal lock that he’ll be playing a role on this team in the second half of the season.
The main takeaway here is that while this first stretch of the campaign has been disconcerting, it’s not quite time to sound the alarm just yet. There are adjustments to be made and alternatives to be explored. More pucks will eventually begin to find their way into the back of the other team’s net if by nothing else than common sense and the law of averages. The raw ability is still in there somewhere.
But it’s well past time to explore those avenues, because relying on your goaltending to the degree which they have thus far isn’t a recipe for sustained success. The underlying issues are extensive enough that they can infect the rest of the operation if not tended to. Whether Mike Johnston is the man to pull those strings is a whole other discussion.