The Penguins penalty killing problems are a big concern.
There is certainly some truth in the notion that special teams performance in the NHL can be cyclical. Almost every team will see its power play and its penalty kill experience occasional periods of great success and frustrating futility.
Does this explain why the Penguins, who have killed penalties at just 71.0 percent over the last 10 games and 65.2 percent over the last five, find themselves this morning among the worst penalty killing teams in the league?
Just past the quarter pole of the season, they sit 26th at 77.3 percent, a success level worse than all but one Pittsburgh team over the last 26 seasons (77.2 percent in 2003-04). After a great start which saw them kill 18 of 19 penalties over the opening four games, the Penguins have killed 50 of their 69 penalties over the last 18 games – a 72.4 percent performance that does and should concern coach Mike Sullivan because it’s been going on for a significant period of time.
After the Penguins allowed two more power play goals in a 2-1 home loss to Chicago Saturday, Sullivan decried a “lack of urgency” that is plaguing Pittsburgh’s short-handed efforts. The Penguins’ PK was nothing special last season when they finished tied for 19th at 79.8 percent and went on to win a second straight Cup, but this is a bigger concern for one simple reason:
The 2017-18 Penguins are generating only 2.68 goals per game after leading the league at 3.39 last season.
So far they haven’t been capable of covering up penalty-killing problems by simply scoring more goals.
The Problem From Different Angles
- The Penguins are taking too many penalties. They lead the NHL with 100 minor penalties, they’re second-worst in times short-handed (88) and third-worst in average penalty minutes per game (12:27). Among the players who are on pace to record a career-high number of penalty minutes this season: Sidney Crosby (119 PIM projected), Phil Kessel (82), Patric Hornqvist (67), Jake Guentzel (67 in his first full season, though that still seems like too many) and Ryan Reaves (246).
- The Penguins are taking penalties brought on by poor positioning, ill-conceived risks or simple frustration. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, who has a minor in each of the past five games, and Kris Letang have had their share of those frustration penalties. Letang’s minors have proved to be killers; he’s caused the Penguins to be short-handed 10 times this season and six of those penalties have been turned into power play goals. What to Do With Kris Letang?
- The timing of Pittsburgh’s penalty killing failures could hardly be worse. Of the 20 power play goals they’ve allowed, 11 of them have broken a tie; three of them have tied a game, and six of them have added to a Penguins deficit. Not a single one of these came in situations where the Penguins had a multi-goal lead and could, to some degree, afford them. This means their PK failures have most often forced them to chase the game – not what you want to do while playing the crazy schedule handed the Penguins this season.
- Every penalty that must be killed is also a potential 2:00 stretch where Malkin, Kessel, and Crosby (who does take some PK draws but rarely stays out) are off the ice. This is one contributing reason for the fact Malkin is averaging a career-low 18:13 of ice time per game this season.
- Every penalty taken, by extension, is also another 2:00 stretch of potential danger for the Penguins’ PK unit, which prefers to take away shooting lanes rather than force opponents with the puck to make quick decisions. There’s zero questioning of their courage, and Ian Cole (Roman Josi shot) and Carter Rowney (Viktor Hedman shot) both were injured while blocking shots on the PK.
- All this penalty killing has added very tough minutes to the ice time of almost every member of the PK units. Only Olli Maatta is averaging less time on the PK this season than he did last season; among those adding time per game this season are Rowney (+2:27), Riley Sheahan (+2:15), Brian Dumoulin (+1:18), Bryan Rust (+:57), Matt Hunwick (+:54), Letang (+:40), Tom Kuhnhackl (+:39), Carl Hagelin (+:39) and Cole (+:31). This adds up night after night.
- Two things we know are not contributing to the Pittsburgh PK issues: goaltending and faceoffs. Matt Murray’s performance while short-handed has not been an issue, and despite losing Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen over the summer, the Penguins are winning a significantly higher percentage of their PK faceoffs this season. Thanks to the efforts of Sheahan and Greg McKegg, the faceoff success rate has climbed from 40.5 percent last season to 51.3 percent this season – a level no NHL team reached in 2016-17.
Perhaps the imminent return of Rowney from a broken hand will help Pittsburgh turn things around, not only because of his skill on the PK but also because it will increase the competition for ice time and, ostensibly, motivate better efforts. But this much is certain: the Penguins must find a way to fix this. A return to form for a recently sluggish power play would help what is Pittsburgh’s biggest problem 22 games in – a lack of goals. But right now, the penalty killing problems are a close second.