This season, the Penguins powerplay has given up a total of 7 shorthanded goals in 26 games (on just 24 shots), the most of any team in the NHL. Three of those 7 have come in the last 4 games and 6 of the 7 have come since the calendar flipped to November.
Inherently, that stinks.
To put that into perspective, over the whole 82 game season in 2017-18, they gave up just 3, joint-fewest in the league (level with Tampa and San Jose).
In 2016-17, they gave up 7 as well, but again, over 82 games (tied for 19th fewest).
So to say that they have a problem this year with giving up shorties on the PP isn’t unfounded, particularly when you consider this: of those 7 goals against, 5 have occurred while Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist, and Letang were on the ice together. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang were on the ice with Jake Guentzel for one of them as well, which is to say PP1 has been on the ice for 6 of the 7 SHGs this season.
Put another way: Six of the 7 shorthanded goals against have come with just one defenseman on the ice.
Again, for perspective, since the start of the 2016-17 season, this fivesome of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist, and Letang (in 107 games played) has scored 37 PPG and given up 9 shorthanded goals against. So five of their last 9 shorties against have come this season. Furthermore, Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang (the backbone of PP1), have seen half of their 12 shorthanded goals against since 2016-17 come this season.
That’s not insignificant.
So it should come as no surprise that the suggested fix is to take one of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, or Hornqvist off PP1 to include a second defenseman at the point to support Letang in an effort to try to mitigate these shorthanded goals and chances against. This, too, would not be unfounded.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at two things to see if it’s justified to put another defenseman on the ice by looking at some numbers and breaking down the 7 SHGs against this season.
A risk/reward evaluation, if you will.
With the man-advantage, via Natural Stat Trick (all stats herein come from there), and armed with the knowledge that the Penguins have given up the most shorthanded goals against and lead the league in shorthanded goals against per 60 minutes of powerplay ice time at a staggering 3.63 (over a full goal more than the Kings 2nd most 2.54 and the 3rd most Ducks at 2.19, whereby no other team in the league breaks the 2 GA/60 threshold), you’d expect the Penguins to be in the top 3-5 in the league in terms of shots, attempts, and chances against on the powerplay, right?
Well, it turns out that the Penguins give up the 10th most shot against per 60 minutes of powerplay time at 12.44, behind the likes of Tampa (6th – 13.61), San Jose (3rd – 14.19), and Boston (1st – 17.57). Their 17.1 shot attempts against and 15.55 unblocked shot attempts against per 60 minutes of PP time have them ranked 13th and 11th most, respectively, while their 9.33 scoring chances against per 60 and 3.11 high danger scoring chances against per 60 on the powerplay have them ranked 7th and 22nd, also respectively.
So, in terms of what they allow on the powerplay, they’re very much middle of the pack, leaning slightly into the “not great” realm.
Here’s the catch: the Penguins PP has scored a total of 18 goals this season. Of those 18, 15 were scored by one of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist, or Letang (83.3%). The PP’s 18 goals on 73 opportunities (24.6%) finds them ranked 8th in the league this season, despite spending just 115:46 on the powerplay this season (both TOI and number of chances are 2nd fewest in the NHL).
Quite simply, they’re getting it done this year on the powerplay despite limited chances.
Sticking with looking at the last 3 seasons, since the start of 2016-17, only the Toronto Maple Leafs 24.9% is better than the Pens 24.6% efficiency with the man-advantage. The Pens 146 PP goals over that stretch is second most behind the 157 scored by Tampa. Of those 146, Crosby (26), Malkin (29), Kessel (23), Hornqvist (28), and Letang (8) have scored 114 of them (78.1%).
It’s important to keep in mind that, over that stretch, those 5 players weren’t on the ice together for all of those 114 goals. There have been injuries preventing that as well as different scenarios (5v3, 4v3, blowout leads where 2 D man the point, etc.) that call for different personnel at times.
To that end, since 2016-17, 37 of those 146 goals have come with all 5 of those guys on the ice (25.3%) and 52 have come with Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Kessel all on the ice (35.6%) together, whether that be with a different net front presence or on a 4v3. To account for the time away Letang spent from PP1, Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Schultz have been together for 32 of those 147 (21.9%), with 23 coming with Hornqvist on the ice with those 4.
So, by and large, and for better or for worse, the 4F-1D model does work for the Pens. You want your powerplay to strike fear into your opponents by way of scoring goals and the unit of Crosby-Malkin-Kessel-Hornqvist-Letang certainly does that.
[Supplemental reading: Back in May, I had a long tweet thread regarding Kessel’s impact on the powerplay as the trade rumors were swirling. You can find that thread here.]
But what about the goals against this season? For as good as those 5 are together at putting the puck in the back of the net, is there anything in the video to suggest that another defenseman on the point would have helped prevent these goals against? Let’s take a look.
1. 10/6/18 – Penguins vs. Canadiens – G: Joel Armia; A: Paul Byron, Jeff Petry
In the first SHG given up this season, the puck beats Matt Murray at the end of a play where the Penguins are caught with two forwards, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, as the lone guys back in a defensive posture.
This is because, after a clearance by the Habs, Letang goes back to retrieve the puck and skates it out of his own end. With the Canadiens changing behind the play, it effectively cuts the ice in half as the fresh troops pour over the boards. The Habs forwards are stacked in the neutral zone as the D man the blue line. A cross-ice feed for Letang is too dangerous here and, by the time he crosses the red line, he’s got too much speed and not enough room to slip it to Malkin at the blue line for the zone entry.
Utilizing his speed, Letang is able to deke around Petry, drive wide and get to the corner. However, on this particular sequence, as Letang eats the puck along the corner boards, he is immediately surrounded by 2 Montreal players on either side of him. By the time Malkin and Hornqvist get in to support him, the puck is already jarred loose between the two Habs surrounding 58 and Byron and Armia are heading back on a 2v1 against Kessel, with Malkin on the backcheck.
Despite Kessel not being a defenseman, he does decently well here. He keeps Byron to the outside, even though he doesn’t have the same gap control of someone like Brian Dumoulin. Until the point that Kessel gets turned around and pivots, he has the pass to Armia taken away. By that point, Malkin is back in the play and even with Armia driving the net.
Again, Phil does a good job here to get his stick in the passing lane, getting a decent chunk of the pass. Malkin, though, loses the battle and Armia is able to backhand the bouncing puck behind Murray.
Verdict: Not sure a defenseman in Kessel’s position here would’ve changed play. The issue seemed to be more with the forward backchecking (Malkin here) than the forward at the point (Kessel here) failing to defend properly. Furthermore, in a 3-0 game that you’re just trying to score even one goal to get back into it, you have to push the envelope here and load up with all of your weapons when you get yourself a powerplay.
2. 11/1/18 – Penguins at Islanders – G: Josh Bailey; A: Casey Cizikas
The second shorthanded goal of the season came in the shootout loss to the Islanders in November. Here, the Pens are on a 5v3 right as Josh Bailey’s penalty is expiring. Unless you’re the San Jose Sharks and have Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson on your team, you’re likely not going to go with 2 D on a 2-man-advantage.
Nevertheless, with the Pens threatening and pulling the Islanders out of position with the quick passing between Letang, Malkin, and Crosby on the near side, Josh Bailey was released from the box to get back into the fray. As he’s let go, Letang creeps down to the top of the faceoff circle for a one-timer off a low feed from Crosby. On a 5v3, this is what you want your point guys to do: get a one-timer from as close to the goal as possible while the PK is as compact or disorganized as possible.
As he rips the puck, Casey Cizikas sells out for the block and chases down the loose puck. As this happens, Hornqvist gets cross-checked from behind, prohibiting him from even challenging Cizikas. You could probably make the case that Hornqvist had the angle and a step on Cizikas to get there first had he not gotten knocked down. Either way, Cizikas wins the race.
Letang and Malkin both recognize this and start drifting back to the point. Letang looks as though he gets caught in between two minds here: pinch on the puck carrier, where he would’ve expected Malkin to cover for him over the top, or try to delay and take away the pass to Bailey (because he lets Bailey skate by him). Neither decision is particularly “wrong” here, but with no safety valve in behind, Cizikas is free to bank a pass off the boards around Letang to Bailey and send him in for a breakaway goal against Murray.
Verdict: As noted above, it’s hard to justify putting 2 D to man the point on a 5v3. Having someone take the responsibility to be that fail safe probably would’ve turned Bailey’s 1v0 into a 1v1, but the situation here didn’t call for that. Down 1-0 with a 5v3 and in need of a goal, just like against Montreal, you need to load up with all of your weapons.
3. 11/3/18 – Penguins vs. Maple Leafs – G: Zach Hyman; A: N/A
Just two days later, the Pens would go on to give up their 3rd shorthanded goal of the year. Just like against Montreal a month prior, the Pens are losing substantially, loading up with their big powerplay boys to try to break a shutout. This one, though, happened to come in the final 20 seconds of a 4-0 game.
Once again, we see Letang going back to collect a clearance and lugging it up ice before dropping it off to Kessel trailing to find a path through the 1-3 the Leafs were implementing here. Kessel’s pass to Malkin on the far side of the ice allowed Malkin to attack Hyman and his supporting defenseman as Kessel burned through the PKers to take Malkin’s short zone entry pass. Kapanen here sees Kessel coming and shifts over, knocking the puck off of his stick and eventually finding its way to the corner to be chipped at Crosby by Zaitsev.
Crosby is immediately put under pressure by Hyman and, in an attempt to just bang the bouncing puck to Hornqvist standing next to him, has his pass broken up. Hyman collects it and turns it into a 2v1 with Kapanen on Letang, who rightfully sat back on the play.
Much like Kessel did against Montreal, Letang does well here to take away the pass long enough for a backchecking forward (Hornqvist here) to get back into the play on the non-puck-carrier. Letang activates when he sees Hornqvist is back and Hyman is about to shoot, rendering Kapanen ineffective on the rest of the play. In fact, as Hyman takes his shot, you can see Kapanen peeling away from the net to head back to his own end of the ice. But the shot catches Murray up high and the rebound kicks right out to Hornqvist’s skate, deflecting off of him and ending up in the net behind Murray.
Verdict: Letang’s positioning here is the position you’d expect your 2nd D-man on the powerplay to take up. So unless you can guarantee that D1 (Crosby, in this case) will 100% of the time handle the bouncing puck, you can’t really say an extra D-man would’ve prevented this. Two unlucky bounces and the puck is in the back of your net is sometimes the story of hockey. That said, again we go back to the situation here: the Pens are trying to break a shutout to take something positive away from an otherwise negative game. Is a 5-0 loss really much different from a 4-0 loss? Probably not.
4. 11/17/18 – Penguins at Senators– G: Mark Stone; A: N/A
Exactly two weeks later, the 4th of 7 shorthanded goals ended up in the Penguins net. On this one, the Pens are down 3-1 in Ottawa on the backend of a powerplay where the second unit of Sprong-Brassard-Simon-Maatta-Oleksiak is on the ice late in the period.
Here, they fail to get the puck in deep and Maatta/Oleksiak are forced to retreat and try again. From the get-go, it looks like trouble. Both are slow in gathering the puck and transitioning up ice, allowing Mark Stone to press Maatta into moving from one side of the ice to the other before getting it north to Simon with his feet moving.
Watch here, though, as Simon gets to the blue line. All three of the forwards are on top of one another on that side of the ice, making it incredibly easy for Dylan DeMelo to defend against. Simon doesn’t chip it by DeMelo with nearly enough ferocity, turning the puck over to the Sens defenseman in one of the worst areas to turn the puck over: around the offensive blue line.
DeMelo gets it out of the zone, but only as far as Maatta. Maatta stops up and turns back towards his own goal rather than rimming it around the boards and resetting the whole play, even if it meant Ottawa getting the puck back 200 feet away from the Pens goal. That would’ve been preferred here.
You’ll notice in the video that, while the 3 Pens forwards were functionally useless while on top of one another, Jamie Oleksiak is the only Penguin on the ice trying to stretch the Sens PK across the ice. He’s on the far end of the blue line, opposite of the puck carrier Simon, pulling Thomas Chabot over there with him. With Simon unexpectedly turning it over, Oleksiak has to turn around himself to try to get back into a position to support Maatta, a difficult enough task even before Maatta turned it over. Without the weak chip from Simon, Oleksiak finds himself in a good position to either pinch down the wall if it is rimmed around or seal off the wall if the Sens try to exit on that side.
Combined Oleksiak getting caught in the zone after the turnover with Maatta’s inexplicable decision to turn away from the goal the Pens are attacking and Mark Stone’s pace and you have a recipe for disaster.
Maatta is never going to out-skate Stone here and with Oleksiak so far away, Maatta leaves himself with only one option: try to backhand a pass to Sprong at center ice. Stone recognizes this, picks the pass and storms in on DeSmith, beating him on the backhand.
Verdict: This is the only SHG against this year scored against the second unit with 2 D on the ice. You could’ve had 100 D-men on the ice and it wouldn’t have stopped this goal.
5. 11/27/18 – Penguins at Jets– G: Brandon Tanev; A: Ben Chiarot, Adam Lowry
Ten days later, in Winnipeg, it would happen again. After the Penguins lost the opening draw of their powerplay opportunity, Ben Chiarot’s clearance from behind his own goal line proved too difficult for Letang to handle at the blue line. It was bouncing at his feet and he got interfered with a bit by Adam Lowry, which gave Brandon Tanev a free lane to the loose puck.
Still, Letang nearly beat him to it and Kessel, closing in from the far side, nearly swept it away from Tanev, but the Jets forward got a little fortunate here as Kessel knocked it off of him and into the end wall.
This is where the wheels fall off.
Kessel, in effect, switches off defensively here, albeit for about 1.5 seconds. He glides in his pursuit of Tanev behind the net, allowing him to swing out into the faceoff circles.
Still, though, the Penguins aren’t in bad shape here. The Jets have just 2 players below the circles and a late defenseman, tracked by Malkin, peeling back out of the zone as Tanev hits the hashmarks. You’d bank on the Pens 100 times out of 100 to take control of the puck with a 4v2 advantage in their own zone.
Kessel, still tracking Tanev, does enough to keep him from shooting as he hits the hashmarks and does enough to allow Crosby to pinch over in support. So, while Kessel’s chase behind the net proved to leave a lot to be desired, he stuck with it well enough to get bailed out.
Unfortunately for him, Crosby’s fly by did not bail him out and Tanev finished off the nice individual effort through DeSmith.
Verdict: Kessel’s closing speed here to catch Tanev is part of why using 4F-1D works better with the Penguins current roster construction. Even if you account for Kessel being slightly out of position on the initial clearance by Chiarot (he’s all the way over at the far wall instead of being more central) and you factor in someone like Johnson or Maatta being a bit closer to Letang and maybe slightly back in the neutral zone, it would be a tough argument to make that any one of them would’ve caught Tanev initially the way Kessel did.
6. 12/1/18 – Penguins vs. Flyers– G: Dale Weise; A: Scott Laughton, Andrew MacDonald
Four days later is where the shorthanded goals against became more of a trend. This time, at home against the Flyers, a Dale Weise shortie ended up being the game winner in a tough game for the Pens.
With the puck in behind the Flyers net, the Pens committed all 4 forwards below the goal line with Hornqvist being the lone forward not along the end boards, though still in deep. If you’re going to commit that many players down low, you best be sure you’re going to come away with the puck.
The Penguins did not and Andrew MacDonald was able to chip it by Crosby along the boards to Scott Laughton. As this happens, Hornqvist starts to move back in the direction of his own goal, but Dale Weise already has a couple of steps on him.
In what was Letang’s first and only bad game of the season, you can partially see here why that was. Laughton has two options here when he gets the puck: dump it deep into the Pens end of the ice or pass it to Weise streaking out of the Flyers zone. Both options should have seen Letang drop back at a minimum into the neutral zone. Instead, he holds the line and is dead to rights by the time Laughton makes his decision to pass.
Letang’s path of pursuit here, turning towards the near wall, is what kills him in the end. He never has a chance to get his angle right to chase down Weise and by the time he does close him down, Weise’s shot is about to come off his stick and beat DeSmith.
Verdict: Here, an extra D on the play would’ve probably helped. The Pens committing as many players as they did down low left Letang exposed at the point, regardless of his poor decision. With 2 D on the ice, Letang’s decision to hold the line, and knowing that he had cover over the top to deal with Weise, wouldn’t have looked as bad either.
7. 12/4/18 – Penguins vs. Avalanche– G: Matt Nieto; A: Gabriel Bourque
The latest, and the one that’s sparked this recent conversation, came Tuesday night at home against Colorado. With a 3-2 lead midway through the 2nd period, the Pens got a PP chance and opportunity to possibly kill off the game, even if they took their foot off the gas for the entirety of the middle frame.
Here, again, the Pens have bodies committed to the boards in Kessel and Crosby. This time, though, they win the puck and it comes out to Letang for the shot. Not shown here is Malkin on the far half-wall in the event that Letang finds him for a shot instead, which is likely the position the “extra” defenseman would’ve taken up (or, at a minimum, been moving towards when Letang picks up the puck at the point here).
Letang is seen here looking at Hornqvist’s screen in front as a prime opportunity to score a goal. Hard to fault him for that. But as Letang tees up a bomb from the point, Bourque steps into the lane and blocks the shot to send Nieto the other way with him on a 2v1.
Kessel gets on his horse, hacking and whacking at Nieto the whole way up ice. Nieto knows he’s there and sees that Bourque is not a passing option because of the position Letang takes up here. Nieto, instead, slams on the brakes and lets Kessel pass him as he cuts towards the middle of the ice.
Watch Letang here as Nieto does that. He uses his inside edges of his skates to slow himself up to potentially defend Nieto while also taking away Bourque as an option. Nieto was probably always going to shoot here, but Letang’s subtle play here forced his hand. But, even still, Nieto’s shot was able to beat DeSmith stick side over his shoulder despite 58’s best efforts.
Verdict: Again, you have to weigh the options here. Let’s assume PPD2 would’ve been to Letang’s right when he took his shot, similar to the position Malkin was taking up. The blocked shot and Nieto turning defense to offense as quickly as he did, would any Pens D-man have had the speed to get back and close down Bourque so Letang could’ve stepped up on Nieto with Phil? Probably not. What’s more, if the extra D-man is there taking up Kessel’s position, would he have had the speed to close down Nieto and slow him up the way that Kessel did? Also probably not.
Following the latest SHG, coming in that win Tuesday night against the Avs, sparked in part Hornqvist’s game winning powerplay goal, Mike Sullivan had this to say after the game:
“When we got the power play, my gut instinct was to throw them back out there because when they’re on, they’re good. They’re as good a power play as there is in the league. I believe in them, and that’s why I tend to try to stick with them.”
Based on the amount of goals that they’ve scored and the rate in which they’ve done so both this year and over the last three seasons versus some of the unlucky circumstances surrounding the shorthanded goals they’ve given up this year alone, it’s hard to argue with him there.
Fully acknowledging that this exercise is partially subjective and somewhat hypothetical, you can probably say with a fair degree of certainty that at least one of these 6 goals (not including the Stone marker) may have been eliminated with a second defenseman on the point. The others could just as much be considered bad luck (like a rebound in off a Penguin player, two blocked shots leading to breaks, or two uncontrollable bouncing pucks leading to chances) that would’ve happened regardless of personnel.
And when you consider the options currently to play as D2 on that top unit, such as Jack Johnson or Olli Maatta, you intrinsically have to remove a forward. The most likely candidate there would probably be Patric Hornqvist. Then, you’d have to consider the following:
- How is taking away his net-front presence going to hurt the powerplay, if any?
- Is sacrificing his closing speed, though coming from a longer distance away, worth it for noticeably worse/slower skaters in Maatta/Johnson?
Shorthanded goals will always be a risk and an event that seems to swing momentum (if you believe in that sort of thing) of any given game. Seven SHG in 26 games sucks and the Pens are 2-4-1 in those games this year and 140-330-26 in franchise history when they’ve given up a SHG, so the impact is there. That, too, sucks. But again, of their last 593 PP opportunities (9th most since 2016-17), they’ve given up just 17 SHGs against in those 190 games (7-9-1). So should recent events change something that has been so demonstratively successful?
As seen above, the Pens have scored 146 PP goals since the start of 2016-17, or 0.768 powerplay goals per game. The powerplay is substantially more likely to score a goal (damn near one per game) than they are likely to give one up shorthanded.
For my money, the reward of leaving Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist, and Letang together as PP1 largely outweighs the recency bias we’ve seen this year with the 7 SHGs against, especially given how they were scored, and Sullivan’s choice to stick with that 4F-1D model is probably still the right move.