Pittsburgh Penguins First Half Review and Second Half Preview

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By Jim Meinecke

It has certainly been a roller coaster ride for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans so far this season. A season that began back in May with a bizarre series of events that included the firing of Ray Shero, the hiring of Jim Rutherford  whose first duty was to fire Dan Bylsma hours later, and ultimately culminated with a long, arduous coaching search that ended on the relative no name, Mike Johnston. It was a process that spanned over a month and left Johnston a solid two days to prepare for the NHL draft on June 27 and 28. The Penguins selected Kasperi Kapanen in the first round. Jim Rutherford did not waste any time making his second move of great significance by trading James Neal to the Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Once free agency started July 1, Rutherford also went and picked up Blake Comeau and Steve Downie.  Then, we moved into the end of July where Rob Rossi stirred up the entire fan base by suggesting the Penguins’ season was already on the line when Mike Johnston went to visit Evgeni Malkin in Russia. Finally after a solid training camp, the Penguins sent Kapanen back to Finland. This, of course, drew the ire of many fans. Phew!

The rest of the first half saw some unexpected highs and plenty of lows:

THE GOOD

Fleury could allow 10 goals and it would still be a beautiful performance in those pads. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Marc-Andre Fleury’s Six Shutouts Lead the NHL (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Flower Power

Marc-Andre Fleury’s trials and tribulations have been well-documented during his tenure with the Penguins. In summation, the regular season has been friendly…very friendly. The postseason, on the other hand, has been anything but friendly (except for two postseasons, of course). Coming into the year, a contract year, no one really knew what to expect from Fleury. I wrote at the beginning of the season that I expected a huge season from Fleury and that he would ultimately win the Vezina. With this, he would be in the Burgh for the long haul. This was met with laughter, but half of my statement came true, and the other half doesn’t look like such a long shot anymore. In November, Rutherford signed Fleury to a four-year contract extension, and Fleury has earned every bit of that thus far. He is eighth in the league with a .921 save percentage, and he is twelfth in the league with a 2.31 GAA average. Those numbers are slightly skewed by the problems the Penguins had in the last 10-12 games before the All-Star break. Make no mistake about it, Fleury is having a career year, and the Penguins will need him to be in top form if they have any chance to win another cup.

Penalty Kill

The Penguins started the season giving up five power play goals in fifteen attempts, or a 60% penalty kill rate. Since that time, they have only had two games where they have given up more than one power play goal. They currently sit at 87.1%, which is good for 3rd in the NHL. This number is even more impressive given how many faces have been in and out of the lineup due to injuries.

THE BAD

http://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/2fff8c593a26242730b5814acb8d587d80237a32/c=0-0-2988-3985&r=537&c=0-0-534-712/local/-/media/2014/12/26/USATODAY/USATODAY/635551906028280337-AP-Panthers-Penguins-Hockey.jpg

Steve Downie Leads the League in PIM (Photo via USA Today)

Penalties

The Penguins knew what they were getting when they signed Steve Downie in the off season. His rap sheet is longer than Jay-Z’s. Bad jokes aside, Downie has been a solid contributor to a team that severely lacked bottom six scoring the past few seasons, but one has to wonder if it is really worth it. Downie leads the NHL with 152 penalty minutes. The next person, Derek Dorsett, is almost 60 minutes away from catching Downie with only 95 minutes. He also leads the NHL in misconduct penalties with six. The next closest are a slew of players at only 2. Finally, he is tied with Dustin Byfuglien for the league lead in unsportsmanlike penalties with four. As a team, the Penguins are second in the league in penalty minutes at 659 behind only Winnipeg at 676 minutes. They are first in penalty minutes per game at 14.33, tied for first in major penalties, tied for first in misconduct penalties, tied for second in unsportsmanlike penalties, tied for second in minor penalties, and tied for second in ATBF (average time between fights). What does all of this mean? A couple of things. First, because of all the penalties, it largely keeps skill players like Crosby and Malkin off of the ice. This is obviously a huge advantage for the opposing team. Additionally, when a player with a decent amount of skill like Downie gets a ten minute misconduct penalty, he is shorting the team. Some players are playing extra minutes. The line combinations are jumbled, and it can really disrupt the rhythm of the game for a team. This will have to be an area of focus for Johnston, Tocchet, and the rest of the staff in the second half of the season.

Power Play

It may seem odd that the Penguins’ power play finds itself under “the bad” section. It is currently ranked 6th in the NHL at 22.1%, which is not too shabby at first glance. Let’s dig a bit deeper. Through the Penguins’ first 13 games, the team clicked on 21 of 56 chances, or at an insane 37.5% clip. That included eight multi-goal games, and an average of 4.3 power play chances per game. Since that point, however, the team has played in 33 more games. The power play has gone 12 for 93, or 12.9%. That percentage would put them 30th in the NHL behind only Florida (12.8%) and Buffalo (9.9%). They only had one multi-goal game in that stretch on January 16th, which meant a drought of 29 games between multi-goal power play games. It also reveals what many Penguins’ fans have been complaining about recently. The Penguins were not getting as many power play chances as they had been earlier in the season. With 93 chances in their last 33 games, that is only 2.82 per game. Maybe some of that is officiating, but a lot of that is the Penguins not drawing as many penalties due to lack of consistency in their game. It is certainly worth noting that injuries have factored into the power play being hampered with Crosby, Kunitz, Letang, and Hornqvist missing time during that stretch, but on a team with this much talent, 12.9% is an unacceptable number.

THE UGLY

Sill's First Goal as a Penguin (Gene J. Puskar, AP)

Sill’s First Goal as a Penguin (Gene J. Puskar, AP)

Fourth Line

General Manager Jim Rutherford has been lauded in his tenure for bolstering the Penguins beleaguered bottom six, and rightfully so. With acquisitions like Steve Downie, Blake Comeau, and even Mark Arcobello, the Penguins are certainly stronger from top to bottom when healthy. That being said, players are still taking roster spots that bring little to this team… I am looking at you Zach Sill, Craig Adams, and Andrew Ebbett. Zach Sill is someone who still manages to have a few fans. Those fans say he brings toughness and is a penalty-killer for the third ranked unit. Both of these traits are overrated and certainly do not justify a roster spot. In 52 career games, Sill has 2 points. No you didn’t read that wrong…TWO. In fairness to him, he’s been on “fire” as of late with one goal and one assist in his last five games. Craig Adams defenders will justify his roster spot in the same breath as Sill. The truth is that the Penguins did just fine when one or both were missing. In the eleven games Sill missed, the Penguins killed penalties at a 91.67% rate, which is higher than their season average. In the five games Adams missed (Sill was also injured), the team killed 19 of 21 penalties, or 90.48%, which is still above their season average. The area Adams has been most physical is in practice when he fought Evgeni Malkin and then took a run at Malkin and Pouliot a week later:

AdamsTweet

Make no mistake about it, for those reasons alone, Craig Adams should be unemployed. but if the Penguins need further proof than what I have mentioned already, let’s look at some Corsi numbers. Craig Adams is at 35.2%. which is the worst on the team other than Scott Wilson, who has only played in one game for the Penguins. Sill checks in at seventh worst, and Ebbett is fifth worst. Even with injuries, these players deserve to be scratched, waived, or playing for the Baby Pens. Players like Megna or Farnham, while having their own issues, at least provide a scoring threat or energy. It is something the players mentioned above barely display in a game…maybe in practice.

Injuries

Clearly the injuries for this team find it’s way into the ugly section. It is something the organization and fan base has almost become accustomed to at this point. Just a quick look back shows the team has been through a potentially life-threatening and certainly career-threatening blood clot with Pascal Dupuis, which sidelined him for the season. Olli Maatta dealt with Thyroid Cancer and most recently a season-ending shoulder injury. By the way, he’s only 20-years-old. There was of course the Mumps disaster that started with Sidney Crosby and spread through a lot of the team and some of the staff.

Crosby with the Mumps in December (Photo courtesy of Sportsnet.ca)

All in all, it means the Penguins are second this year in man games lost due to injury with 174 behind only New Jersey with 204. Players that have missed time include Crosby (Mumps), Hornqvist (lower body), Dupuis (blood clot), Kunitz (foot), Letang (lower body), Martin (undisclosed), Comeau (wrist), Downie (mumps), Griess (mumps), Maatta (mumps, shoulder, thyroid cancer), Despres (illness), Bortuzzo (lower body), and of course Bennett (lower body). Additionally, most recently, Crosby and Malkin will miss some time with lower body injuries as well. It is clear the Penguins have had some horrible luck. How bad? Check out this tweet from Josh Yohe:

Consol Cursed?

Consol Cursed?

That is astounding, and not in a good way. A recent article from mangameslost.com show the Penguins are second in man games lost since 2009-10 with 1707 games. The Islanders are the only team with more during that stretch with 1745 games. The Bruins and Kings are the lowest during that stretch, and they have won three of the last five cups between them. It is something that will have to turn around for this team if they plan to go deep into the playoffs.

2015 Second Half Preview

In the grand scheme of things, the Penguins look to become healthy by the middle of February. Blake Comeau and Patric Hornqvist will resume skating after the all-star break. The Crosby and Malkin injuries don’t appear to be serious and they should return shortly. The latest rumblings on Letang hint that his head/neck injury is not as serious as originally thought. First and foremost, these players need to return and stay healthy for the long-term. Assuming this is the case, the lineup would look something like:

Kunitz – Crosby – Perron

Bennett – Malkin – Hornqvist

Comeau – Sutter – Downie

Spaling – Goc/Adams – Arcobello/Sill

This lineup matches up against any team and is arguably the deepest Penguins team since the cup winning season in ’08-’09. The Penguins would have the luxury to roll out a third line that has scored 28 goals. It would also allow for a more dangerous fourth line with Spaling returning to a more comfortable position.

The power play will need to get back on track, and there is no reason to think it won’t with the talent on display. The addition of the right-handed shot from David Perron has opened up even more possibilities for this unit, and if they get on a roll, they could single-handedly win games for this team.

Another area to watch, the amount of games Marc-Andre Fleury is playing. When Thomas Griess was brought to this team, it was to bring in a capable backup to possibly push Fleury, but mainly to keep him healthy. Griess has started a surprisingly low amount so far at nine games. That means Fleury is projected to start 73 games, which would be the highest total of his career. The Penguins will only go as far as Fleury takes them this summer, and they will need to rest him more frequently in the second half.

My last piece of advice: no matter what, enjoy the ride. The team should be healthy soon enough and judgement should be reserved until then. The Penguins struggled to the all-star break, but there is still a lot of hockey left. For a team that won the cup in ’08-’09 as a fourth seed, it is not how you start or play throughout the season, but how you finish. Let’s see what happens in May.


Thanks for reading!