Gameday 7: Getting Snowed In





With another serious Stanley Cup contender coming to visit them tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins – and I’ll be blunt about it – have to get their heads out of their asses. Last year the Penguins were one point away from making the playoffs in spite of the ineptitude of their general manager at the time, Ron Hextall. Not only was missing the playoffs disappointing on its own, but particularly so because two of the major players on the roster, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, each played full 82 game seasons for Pittsburgh for the first time in their careers ever. Nevertheless they struggled to convert their expected goals into actual goals, to produce on the power play, to prevent goals from going in their own net, to keep leads, and to play full 60 minute efforts on a game-by-game basis.

Miss us already?

This past offseason, the Penguins ownership fired Ron Hextall and replaced him with one of the most highly-regarded young managers in the League, Kyle Dubas. He spent the offseason retooling the roster, shipping out practically all of the bad contracts his predecessor signed, remaking the bottom six into a more coherent (if not offensively gifted) group, replacing the backup goaltender, and acquiring the League’s reigning Norris trophy winner, Erik Karlsson. And yet, this seemingly better-on-paper roster heads into tonight’s game tied with the likes of Chicago and Anaheim for the third-worst record in the NHL, one point ahead of (this should make you feel a little better) Edmonton, and three points ahead of San Jose. All of the issues I highlighted from last year’s team are ongoing despite all of the turnover and on-paper improvement.

(Author’s note: this gif is in the media library nine times.)

After blowing his gasket during and after Saturday’s 4-2 loss against St. Louis, head coach Mike Sullivan was less explosive and more back to his typical self after his team’s 4-1 loss Tuesday against Dallas. Here’s a couple of quotes:

So, I just think it’s a whole different set of circumstances tonight than it was in St. Louis, I thought in St. Louis, we beat ourselves in so many ways. Tonight, we’re playing against a good team. I think the game was a whole lot closer than the score indicates.

These guys are competitive guys, and they care an awful lot. So, when it doesn’t go the right way, of course frustration sets in – but we’ve got to find a way to get over it. That’s what I said to guys after the game, is we got an awful lot of hockey in front of us. There’s a lot of areas where we’ve got to get better in order to set ourselves for success. I think there are still areas where we have to be harder to play against, by nature of just making better decisions with the puck and not allowing teams some of the looks that they’re getting against our net.

(Mike Sullivan, to Michelle Crechiolo)
i speak good hockey things

Let’s start with the fact that I am not a hockey player or a hockey coach. I certainly know a whole lot less about hockey than someone like Mike Sullivan. But perhaps it’s an obvious statement to make that if a team gets chances in the crease and slot areas, that’s the best place to get scoring chances. Another fact: the Penguins are designed to be a high event team; that is, they are going to take a lot of chances at both ends of the ice, offensively and defensively. One would think that a lot of chances would lead to a lot of goals, but that is not exactly how things are going. Here is a table (yay) ranking the Penguins in the NHL in some even-strength, per 60 minute metrics, indicating for/against except the last two metrics (thanks to Natural Stat Trick):

Corsi (all shot attempts)4th/16th
Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts)2nd/12th
Expected goals2nd/19th
Scoring chances4th/11th
High-danger Corsi3rd/15th
High-danger shots-on-goal4th/18th
High-danger goals14th/2nd
High-danger shooting%18th
High-danger save%31st

Right off the bat you can see two things: (1.) as expected, the Penguins are getting a lot of production offensively, and (2.) as unexpected, they’re actually roughly average defensively. It is what happens in goal at both ends of the ice that is what’s kicking Pittsburgh’s ass right now. In their own end, Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic are not doing enough, as they each sit (out of 66 goalies) 20th-worst and 21st-worst, respectively, in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes. In their offensive end they are unfortunately average, sitting 15th in goals for above expected. They do seem to be doing the right thing in terms of limiting their opponents shots in general and high-danger shots in particular, but the goaltending is failing them in the finishing department. Before the season I said the goaltending (specifically Jarry) needed to be in the top-ten in the League for the Penguins to be in good shape. Right now, they’re not even average.

Going back to Sullivan’s quotes, it’s not fair to say that Pittsburgh hasn’t been playing well thus far this season, at least in the overall sense. They have had the majority of shot attempts, shots-on-goal, expected goals, and scoring chances in half of their games, with a couple being over 60%. One of the games that they didn’t control those metrics was their 5-2 win over the Flames. Indeed, the problem still remains that the Penguins don’t put in a full 60 minute effort every night, and that’s probably where Sullivan can be the most upset with his team. But they are otherwise getting subpar goaltending and, what I believe to be their biggest concern right now, is a lack of finishing in their offensive end.

Whether it’s on even strength or the power play, the bugaboo that is keeping Pittsburgh from turning their expected goals into actual goals has been the case for years. It doesn’t help by any means that their bottom six is an offensive black hole for the most part – an offensively-effective third line makes any team more dangerous – but the Penguins has a shiny new toy in Erik Karlsson and yet they still have the third-worst goals-for above expected in the NHL. Their power play is particularly concerning: while they are tied for the second-fewest power-play opportunities and they have the least power-play time per game in the League by almost a full two minutes, per 60 minutes, they are first in Corsi, Fenwick, shots-on-goal, expected goals, scoring chances, and they are in the top ten in high-danger Corsi (6th) and high-danger shots-on-goal (4th). They have two goals on sixteen opportunities, tied for 6th-worst in the League. The overall picture says that the team is asking too much from their top six, and judging by how poorly Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Rickard Rakell are performing, they might be suffering burnout as a result. It’s too early in the season for this.

It’s a lot to have to fix over the course of an entire season, and when one point can mean the difference between a playoff spot and a lottery pick, every loss could be the end of another shot at the Stanley Cup. They can’t afford to wait around for things to fix themselves.