Heading into yesterday’s Trade Deadline, GM Jim Rutherford has stated his priorities: a depth forward and, depending on the latest health reports on Brian Dumoulin and John Marino, potentially a depth defenseman.
Obviously, they weren’t able to grab said defenseman (and when you consider the prices that those players were going for, who can blame them), instead settling by adding a ton of depth and competition to a forward group that’s been decimated by injuries in the form of Patrick Marleau, Evan Rodrigues, and Conor Sheary, cutting ties with Dominik Kahun in the process.
But more than anything, it’s been the Penguins defensive woes of late have been talked about and examined at length. Sean Gentille did a nice job summing it all up here, but the long and short of it is that Jack Johnson has been a mess on the top pairing, most of the Pens problems should be fixed with the return of Marino and Dumoulin (both of whom skated prior to the Capitals loss), and, whether indirectly or directly, that Justin Schultz has no place in the top 4 on this team.
It may be beating a dead horse, but it’s worth looking at just how the Penguins have fared lately. And, over the last 25 or so games, the Penguins have been anything but good defensively.
The Penguins have seen their play, from an expected goals standpoint, go firmly from good to bordering on bad over the last 25 games. What started off as generating about 2.2 expected goals per hour of 5v5 play, adjusted for scoring and venue effects, and allowing just about 1.75 expected goals against over those same scenarios has dropped to under 2.0 expected goals for and about 2.1 against.
In fact, sometime between Dumoulin’s injury and Marino’s injury, they’ve flat out cratered in terms of controlling the play:
Obviously, this is super concerning considering the Penguins have played 34 games and 8 games without Dumoulin (out since 11/30/19) and Marino (out since 2/6/20) respectively.
Getting Justin Schultz back on the final day of January was supposed to provide the Penguins with a boost they desperately needed.
It has not.
Beyond only scoring just 1 powerplay goal in his last 143 games and exactly 0 points in his last 20, Schultz has been nothing short of objectively bad. That’s not just this season, either. In fact, he hasn’t been particularly good or consistent since the conclusion of the 2017 Cup run.
In terms of his share of expected goals/unblocked shot attempts (top) and scoring chances/high danger chances (bottom) at 5-on-5, looking at a 5 game rolling average since the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, you’ll see that Schultz has spent a lot of time below the 50% threshold over the years.
This is especially true over the last two seasons.
While he’s trended a bit up as of late, the up and down nature of his play has not just shown up in the data, but also with the eye test. This sport has a lot of ebbs and flows like this, but it would appear that every time Schultz sees himself starting to play well, he immediately follows it up with a spell of below average/bad play.
This year-by-year decline shows up, too, when comparing him to the rest of the league.
Just in terms of HockeyViz’s Threat Analysis, Schultz has seen his isolated offensive impact at 5v5 go from about level with the league average in 2016-17, down to -7.7% in 17-18, to -13.8% in each of the last two seasons. What this means is that when Schulz is contributing to the Penguins play in the offensive zone, the Penguins are frequently generating fewer unblocked shot attempts from dangerous areas of the ice relative to the rest of the league.
Conversely, Schultz has seen his overall impact on the defensive zone decline since the 16-17 season, going from +4.1% to just under 10% in each of the last 2 seasons. This means that when Schultz is on the ice contributing to the Penguins in the defensive zone, teams are frequently generating more unblocked shot attempts from dangerous areas of the ice relative to that of the league average.
Focusing on just this season, you can see just how much the Penguins are not generating in the offensive zone while giving up a lot in the defensive zone. As with the viz above, blue means fewer unblocked shot attempts than the league average while red means more.
In other words, you want more red in the offensive zone and more blue in the defensive, particular in the high, middle, and low slot areas.
This, generally, holds true this season while looking at Schultz relative to the rest of the Penguins at 5v5.
In fact, per 60 minutes of 5v5 play, the Penguins are generating 1.76 fewer shot attempts, 1.48 fewer scoring chances, 0.18 fewer high danger chances, and 0.26 fewer actual goals, despite generating 0.46 more unblocked attempts, 1.61 more scoring chances, and 0.13 more expected goals with him on the ice compared to when he’s off of it.
Defensively, it’s the same story. The Penguins, per hour of 5v5 play, are giving up 1.06 more shot attempts, 0.16 more unblocked attempts, 0.07 more expected goals, 2.64 more scoring chances, and 0.86 more high danger chances with Schultz on the ice versus when he’s off of it. The only improvement they see is a slight uptick of 0.66 fewer actual shots on goal and 0.03 fewer goals against.
And while the overall share of unblocked attempts, shots on goal, and expected goals are all up a bit with him on the ice, the Penguins see a 1.33%, 4.25%, 1.47%, and 2.29% drop in the shares of shot attempts, scoring chances, high danger chances, and goals with Schultz on the ice.
For a player that has started no less than 55.38% of his 5v5 shifts in the offensive zone since joining the Penguins and 56.83% this season, these numbers are less than ideal. And for a player that’s supposed to be solid at chipping in offensively, he’s done anything but that.
In fact, since the start of the 2017-18, he’s seen 57.40% of his shifts start in the offensive zone and, with the except of the share of goals scored and a slightly positive share of expected goals, the majority of the events taking place when Schultz is on the ice happen in the Penguins defensive zone.
Over that stretch, he’s averaged the 5th most time on ice per game at 16:23, 10 seconds less than Jack Johnson (whom he has spent 495:16 with at 5v5, more than any other Penguin defensemen over this three year period) and 24 seconds less than that of John Marino.
What’s more is that Schultz, over the last 3 seasons, has seen more ice time with Sidney Crosby (705:07), Jake Guentzel (671:30), and Evgeni Malkin (563:13) at 5v5 than any other forward, so the notion that he’s not seeing enough time with the big play drivers can be put to rest.
As you’d expect, too, all three of those players see a larger share of events that take place in their favor when they are away from Schultz than with him.
All that is to say that the Penguins, once Brian Dumoulin and John Marino return, will be best served giving Schultz even more sheltered minutes against easier competition.
Fortunately, they have a model to build from that worked very well earlier in the year.
As we’ll see when those two return, the Penguins defense pairings should look a little something like this:
While Johnson and Schultz haven’t worked in the past, it’s worth noting that occurred while both were playing top 4 minutes for the Penguins. It’s also hard to imagine a world where Pettersson and Marino aren’t joined at the hip for the foreseeable future. From January, about two weeks before Marino’s injury:
But Johnson, whose redemption arc has crashed and burned while playing on the top pairing with Letang, had some “success” prior to that promotion when playing bottom pairing minutes.
The genius of Mike Sullivan was on full display during that, too. As we saw when looking at Johnson in December, deployment is the great equalizer in this sport and Mike Sullivan expertly deployed his extremely good defensive specialist forwards with Johnson to give him support in their own end of the ice. In doing so, it papered over a lot of his cracks.
And with the additions of Sheary, Rodrigues, and Marleau to a bottom six that already includes defensively responsible and superior players like McCann, Blueger, Tanev, ZAR, the Penguins will have more than enough options to solve the problem of the 3rd pairing.
Furthermore, if the 154 5v5 minutes and 140 5v5 minutes Schultz has spent with Tanev and McCann respectively are any indication (considering the sample size here), the Penguins won’t get caved in with Schultz on the ice deployed in this way.
And with the trade deadline passing, they don’t have any other choice other than to make that work and there is no doubt in my mind that HCMS has a plan to do exactly that.