Gameday 11: A Short Stop on Long Island

They weren’t expecting it, but the Pittsburgh Penguins got to take a little break this past week, courtesy of the New Jersey Devils and the postponement of their two scheduled games due to COVID-19 protocols. With such a condensed schedule, the longest pause between games was only going to be two days, interspersed throughout the calendar, but this was a four-game break and at perhaps the most convenient time imaginable. The Penguins have been scuffling along without much confidence, and injuries had ravaged the lineup, forcing the Penguins to dig very deep into their defensive depth chart. Tonight against the New York Islanders they may have as many as three of the players they were without in at least the last game back in the lineup tonight.

First and foremost amongst them is Kris Letang, who probably needed the break more than anyone as the minutes and criticism piled up in his direction. One of the main focuses of the newly-found free time this past week was the power play, of which Letang is supposed to be the quarterback of the first unit. It’s been a really slow start for Letang offensively this season, just three assists, no goals, and only one power play assist for a guy whose career average is one power play point every four games. It’s been a slow start for a number of players, to be fair, but the power play has been particularly brutal this year because of so many shorthanded chances against. This is where the lack of confidence in the first ten games of the season has really hurt the Penguins because, as I mentioned in COVID-us Interruptus, Part 1, the Penguins are usually one of the better teams in the League on the power play.

It goes without saying that the now-former general manager Jim Rutherford has cast away the two main power play specialists this team has had in the last four years in Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist, and it appears that the coaching staff did little to nothing to adapt to life without either an absolute sniper on the the right wall or a big, tough garbage collector in front of goal.

Hornqvist, you may have heard, is now doing exactly that and perfectly fine to boot for the Florida Panthers, while the guys for whom Florida acquired him, Colton Sceviour and Mike Matheson, have not brought much to help recoup that loss. Not just the production on the power play, but the veteran and leadership presence that Hornqvist brought to Pittsburgh.

Mentioning Matheson, he too likely returns to the lineup tonight after missing the last eight games. Although Matheson’s return would likely improve the third pair for the Penguins, that’s not saying a whole lot because he likely squeezes out Yannick Weber and Weber is terrible (although not nearly as bad as Kevin Czuczman!). We will gladly take any improvement anywhere at this point, especially on defense. On that point, the one guy I’m really looking forward to seeing return to the lineup is Zach Aston-Reese.

“Good hockey play”

ZAR is really unsung in the League for his defensive prowess. After all, defensive skill as a forward is usually one of those things that either are really appreciated in guys who also produce on offense; ergo, the Selke trophy is typically awarded to players who are also offensively-productive rather than to “the National Hockey League forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game.” A good way to look at Aston-Reese’s impact defensively is to look at the rates per 60 minutes at which teams are producing against the team when he’s on the ice.

I’m taking from the last three seasons – the extent of ZAR’s career – and amongst forwards with 1300+ minutes of ice time in that span. I wanted to compare Aston-Reese to some of the other key names in the context of “defensive forward” to see if he’s competitive with them. With those parameters in mind, Aston-Reese ranks:

  • 31st in the League in Corsi against/60 (Teuvo Teravainen is 1st; Patrice Bergeron is 3rd; Sean Couturier is 43rd);
  • 16th in Fenwick against/60 (Barclay Goodrow is 1st; Bergeron is 8th; Couturier is 46th);
  • 27th in shots against/60 (Marcus Foligno is 1st; Bergeron is 20th; Couturier is 58th);
  • 3rd in goals against/60 (Andrew Cogliano is 1st; Bergeron is 71st; Couturier is 217th);
  • 5th in expected goals against/60 (Foligno is 1st; Bergeron is 30th; Couturier is 115th);

When you consider also that Aston-Reese started 34.88% of his shifts in the offensive zone, whereas Bergeron would start 63.41% of his shifts in the offensive zone; Couturier: 49.38%; Teravainen: 60.56%; Foligno: 47.9%; Goodrow: 53.42%; Cogliano: 42.99%…in other words, these guys are all given much more opportunities to produce offensively and indeed in most cases do just that. In fact, Aston-Reese started the 19th-fewest shifts in the offensive zone League-wide in the last three seasons.

More to the point, his competition are the offensively-productive guys, those who start the majority of their shifts in the offensive zone. So, when people say, “Oh, he doesn’t produce offensively, he isn’t a good candidate for the Selke,” we need to keep in mind that he’s not being given that opportunity, but he is excelling at the one thing he’s expected to do: defend against the top forwards on the other team.

(This has been my love letter to Zach Aston-Reese. I will gladly receive one (1) yellow alternate #46 Aston-Reese jersey as compensation.)

ANYWAY!…tonight the Penguins face-off for the first of eight games this season against the New York Islanders, a team that has had their number of late, winning eight of the last eleven matches between the two teams, including the four-game first-round sweep two postseasons ago. The good news for the Penguins is that the Islanders have the worst offense in the League (fewest goals scored, second worst shooting percentage), and they have not been very good at penalty killing thus far this season (11th-worst in the League), but they also have committed the fourth-fewest penalties in the League. So, all the kerfuffle about the Penguins pitiful power play may not be addressed right away, but the Islanders are a good test for a rested and hopefully reinforced Penguins team.