Bottom Six: “Grit” and “Character” Need Not Apply

Craig Adams scores his only goal of the season... on a breakaway. (Charles LeClaire/USA Today)

Craig Adams scores his only goal of the season… on a breakaway. (Charles LeClaire/USA Today)

By: Joe Guzy

A little over a week ago, Jim addressed the Pittsburgh Penguins’ identity crisis. He finished with a punch that really resonated with me:

Rutherford can add as much grit to the lineup as he wants, but the team still needs chemistry and it needs a winning attitude. All of these things add up for one final question: who are the Pittsburgh Penguins? It is a question that was asked over the summer, and it is a question that remains a mystery over half way through the season.

Let’s stop right there. General Manager Jim Rutherford has certainly done a good amount of work on the Penguins’ roster. Particularly in the “grit” and “character” categories:

  • Patric Hornqvist is a nuisance in the crease.
  • Blake Comeau is a nuisance in the crease.
  • Steve Downie is a nuisance in general.
  • David Perron can be a nuisance in the crease.
  • Nick Spaling is a nuisance because I can’t keep track of what line he’s on anymore.

These are the guys that will be digging deep in the post-season. They’ll be scoring those key goals or be involved on key plays when a game is on the line. These are also guys that aren’t going to be pushed around. These guys are going to win board battles and keep their team in a playoff game when they’re down by two or three goals. These are currently, in my opinion, the new “grit” and “character” players for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The problem is that, in a healthy roster situation, three of the five players mentioned are top six players.

Let me rephrase that, it’s not exactly a problem. Making sure the guys next to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have “grit” and “character” is extremely important. Filling those roster spots correctly can be the difference between a goal and a bonehead retaliatory penalty. (See: James Neal)

But as the roster is slowly getting healthier, Steve Downie and Nick Spaling are making their way back down to the third and fourth lines.

Problem.

These guys are great hockey players. We know they are more than just depth fill-ins. They can keep up with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and produce. We’ve seen Spaling do some good things with Crosby from time to time. The crisp passes that Downie hands out are always a welcome surprise.

But now, these guys are going to be flanking Brandon Sutter and Maxim Lapierre. More on that a little later.

For now, everyone knows goals, right? Assists? Perfect. Taking a look the bottom sixes of last year’s Stanley Cup Final:

Los Angeles Kings Bottom Six 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs

(Note: Jordan Nolan (3GP) did not record a point and was omitted from the list)

New York Rangers Bottom Six 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs

As I type this, Brian Boyle just scored for his current team, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Any of those names ring a bell from last years post-season? I’m sure the New York Rangers’ bottom six is recognizable by most any Pittsburgh Penguins fan at this point. As is “That 70’s Line” from the Los Angeles Kings if you watched a mere five minutes of last year’s Stanley Cup Final.

It’s pretty easy to figure out who was playing on what line from this alone. But there were several instances where fourth line guys were paired up with first or second line players and managed to perform at that level. We know we can expect that from guys like Steve Downie and Nick Spaling. Can the rest be said for the remaining bunch?

Here are the current regular season totals for the Penguins’ bottom six. With call ups and trades, let’s stick with anyone currently in the system.

2014-2015 Pittsburgh Penguins Bottom Six

Note: Maxim Lapierre (6GP), Scott Wilson (1GP), Dominik Uher (2GP) and Bobby Farnham (11GP) have not recorded points and were omitted from the list.

Again, pretty easy to point out who’s playing third line or getting time with the top-six.

Do these numbers not bother anyone else? Make it a thirty game minimum and it looks even less appealing.

Craig Adams has played in 48 games so far this season. Zach Sill has played in 38 games this season. Both have failed to outscore more than one “grit” and/or “character” player from the New York Rangers’ or Los Angeles Kings’ playoff runs despite being under less pressure and nearing double the amount of games played. I won’t comment on Maxim Lapierre yet, but that doesn’t look too promising either.

There is a desire for the Penguins to be tougher, but at what cost? You can talk about momentum and having a “presence” all you want, but you can’t go anywhere to find stats on those. They’re just talking points. Besides, how much momentum does a Craig Adams or Zach Sill dump in really give the Penguins?

Proponents of “grit” and “character” will bring up that Craig Adams is a great penalty killer and the Penguins need him for that alone.

Let’s go back to the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings and take a look at their player usage in shorthanded situations from last year’s playoffs.

New York Rangers Shorthanded Player Usage 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Data from DobberHockey

Los Angeles Kings Shorthanded Player Usage 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Data from DobberHockey

Notice how a full line of  bottom six players was only used to kill penalties just under 11-percent of the time at most for the Los Angeles Kings? Or that there isn’t an entire pairing made up of bottom six players on the New York Rangers?

Who should be killing penalties for the Pittsburgh Penguins is a story for another day. It’s hard to argue against the fourth best penalty kill in the league right now. But there still is a sizable group calling for top six players to be chipping in on the penalty kill. Can’t argue with that based on the usage data above.

Back to the bottom six in Pittsburgh. What do they provide again?

  • Grit
  • Character
  • Energy
  • Momentum
  • Intimidation
  • Toughness
  • Fighting

Well, they don’t even really bring any of that (unless you’re Bobby Farnham). You get the picture here. Nothing trackable. Nothing even worth tracking. Chances are, if it isn’t worth tracking, it’s not going to help the Penguins win games.

It’s understandable why fans think the Penguins need a line consisting of Zach Sill, Maxim Lapierre and Craig Adams. The Penguins were run over by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. They were shut down by the Boston Bruins in 2013. They were bullied by the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers in 2014.

Another excerpt from Jim’s piece:

This is one of many reasons fans believe the team has struggled in the postseason when defense is raised, ice is limited, and physicality is elevated. So the grit and toughness void is no longer present with players like Downie, Lapierre, Sill, Bortuzzo, and even Comeau. It’s a fine line though because the Penguins want to be tougher to play against, but they don’t really embody a mucking and grinding style throughout their lineup.

Do you remember the name of the main antagonist in the Columbus Blue Jackets series? He terrorized Sidney Crosby night after night. Continually frustrated the team as a whole? Maybe this will help:

Dubinsky was nothing but a thorn in the Penguins’ side for that agonizing six game series. While playing his antagonist role, he still managed to put up six points. Don’t know how much “grit” and “character” he provided, but he netted what could have been a back breaking goal and earned five assists. Can you put multiple responsibilities like that on Brandon Sutter, Maxim Lapierre, Craig Adams or Zach Sill? Granted, Dubinsky is a second line center and is probably more comparable to those playing alongside Crosby and Malkin. But it just proves that you don’t need to be a “grit” and “character” player to… well you know, provide “grit” and “character.”

The Penguins have a great foundation to be talented while being extremely annoying to play against. There’s just a shmorgishborg of average players occupying those depth spots in a terrible attempt to be “tougher.”

If the Penguins want to win, they will need to be able to roll four lines. Being top heavy and sending out two lines of needless hitting in the name of “grit” and “character” won’t get them very far in the post-season. We know what happens when the Penguins’ top two lines get shut down. They lose.

The solution? Get healthy… kind of.  

If Blake Comeau returns to the lineup sooner than later, this problem may start to go away. It nearly disappears if Rutherford can acquire another winger before the deadline. The sooner you can shift guys like Downie and Spaling down the lineup the better… or so you would think. Remember I mentioned earlier that this is a problem? Look at the centers they’re flanking:

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(9:06 am) EDIT: Following tweets were added after publishing. This really can’t be ignored.

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Some advanced stats in the mix thanks to @LyleKossis and @vinnybatts

Anyone miss Marcel Goc yet? Critics say he didn’t produce enough. Frankly, it was as simple as being flanked by talentless wingers. The same will happen with talented forwards flanking below replacement level centers. Watch both issues in action with Craig Adams and Zach Sill playing flanking Maxim Lapierre. Is that a line you have any faith in when the post-season rolls around? Is that a line you even have faith in now?

To “finish” Jim’s piece, the Penguins are never going to grind their way a fourth Stanley Cup. They are not going to fight their way to a fourth Stanley Cup. They are going to win a fourth Stanley Cup with talent. That talent can come in many different ways, but it must be present on all four lines. Right now, it is not.

In both advanced statistics and in basic scoring, it’s evident that the Penguins have only addressed half the issue that knocked them from the playoffs in 2013 and 2014. At this point, it looks like the same issue is going to knock them out in 2015. But at least they’ll go through the handshake line with “grit” and “character,” right?