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PHN Blog: Beyond the Attitude, Penguins Have One Major Need

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PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 17: Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Bryan Rust (17) celebrates his goal with Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Jake Guentzel (59) during the first period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Anaheim Ducks on December 17, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

The need for an attitude adjustment is a given. The culture of me seeped into the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room and as a result, their golf game hasn’t received this much attention since 2006. Beyond the ‘tude, the Penguins have one major area which needs to improve and as improbable as it may be, the traditionally offensive Penguins need to score more goals.

Believe it or not.

A team which scored 274 goals and signs paychecks for multiple Art Ross trophy winners and one of the most prolific goal scorers of this generation should not struggle to score goals. Yet, that worry about finishing which many had in March turned out to be true. The Penguins bombarded opposing goaltenders with scoring chances, but either had the worst six week run of hot goaltenders or lacked finish.

Beginning with the Stadium Series game on February 23 when the Penguins began to play good hockey (finally), their team identity was on display. After 10, maybe 15 games, it is a trend and not an aberration; the Penguins couldn’t score.

And no, the Penguins biggest problem wasn’t their defensemen. Blunt truth–and this is a blog style today–that is the most ideological yet blindly thrust opinion I’ve seen in years. Reflexively, without hesitation and relentlessly, too many Penguins fans have returned to the dogmatic brutalization of the Penguins defense.

Jim Rutherford was right to get testy in April when he was challenged on the subject. He undoubtedly heard the tidal wave of blame Jack Johnson received and the ignorant dismissals of  Erik Gudbranson.

“Have you been to the games,” Rutherford shot back when a reporter asked about the speed of the defense. But I’m blue in the face explaining, describing, diagramming, showing, and otherwise chuckling at the powerful social media contingent which formed based on the shared perceptions and bias confirmation.

Nope, the Penguins lacked offense. Not defense. Have a look.

Beyond the Penguins Stats 5v5

In the six week period from the Stadium Series game to the end of the season, the Penguins finally had all pieces in-house. At even strength, they scored 60% of the goals. That’s remarkable but not the full story.

At 5v5, the Penguins ranked sixth in expected goals for, and fifth in expected goals against, according to Natural Stat Trick. Further, the Penguins ranked first in scoring chance goal differential, first in save percentage on scoring chances, first in high danger scoring chances and they allowed the fewest high danger chances (see, not the defense). Those rankings should have made them elite.

In raw data, the Penguins also ranked ninth in total scoring chances. So far, so good.

But expected goals and real goals, scoring chances and “should be” are different than reality.

Here is where the Penguins shortcoming is brightly-colored obvious. Despite being ninth in cumulative scoring chances, the Penguins were 21st in scoring chance goals. That’s not too terrible until the raw data is ripped apart.

The Penguins needed 485 scoring chances to score just 37 goals. That’s bad. They ranked 26th with a 10% shooting percentage on scoring chances. Most players are about 10% overall; good shots and bad shots. The Penguins converted just 10% of the good shots.

The sub-zero temperatures of both Patric Hornqvist’s stick and Phil Kessel’s contributed mightily. Dominik Simon’s lack of finish didn’t help matters nor did Bryan Rust’s offensive game.

So, when the Penguins buckled in, they produced elite level scoring chance differentials, volume, and high danger chances. They just didn’t actually put the puck in the net. And as all eyes turn towards changes this summer and the potential roster next season, the space for improvement has neon flashing lights pointing the way.

It’s not the defense. It’s not coaching. Or any other popular point of angst. The Penguins simply need to put the puck in the net when they get the chance. Though the adjustment in the team game certainly isn’t going to hurt, either.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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