Talent. Depth. Despite the Pittsburgh Penguins abundance of centers and roster versatility, the team has thus far not yielded a consistent third or fourth line capable of positive contributions. Except for the Penguins four-game Canadian road trip in which Matt Cullen led a successful defensive line, the Penguins bottom six could be declared a Hazmat disaster. The injury to Derick Brassard has only exacerbated a bad situation.
Note teams and players don’t pay much attention to Corsi ratings. They discuss scoring chances.
So skipping past the miserable Corsi rating for Riley Sheahan (41 percent), he is underwater in scoring chances, as well. When Sheahan is on the ice, the Penguins are getting only 46 percent of the scoring chances and 43 percent of the high danger chances.
The goal differential is much worse. With Sheahan, only 28.5 percent of the goals scored have been for the Penguins. Sheahan has just one goal and one assist. Halloween may be over, but that stat is scary.
Those are just the statistics. The eyes tell a similar story. The third and fourth lines have been a punching bag opponents have used to gain offensive advantage and goals. The abysmal play has led to shortened benches, in-game deficits and placed the full burden on the Penguins top players to carry the full offensive responsibilities.
The hope for secondary scoring has been replaced by the hope not to be in a hole. In the final days of training camp, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan admitted he shortened the bench last season because he didn’t have confidence in those players. But he was excited by the balance and options he would have this season.
So far, the Penguins bottom lines have not delivered. They’re not creating offensive zone time, not winning enough puck battles and they’re not making life difficult for opponents.
The rest of the bottom-six crew is also in the red and Sullivan could charge a few players like Daniel Sprong an admission fee because their play has forced Sullivan to relegate them to spectators for the final 20 or 30 minutes of hockey games.
Matt Cullen has been a step forward at fourth line center but his production is still underwater. Cullen’s goal differential is 40 percent, his scoring chances are 42 percent and the high danger chances are 42.5 percent. Removing the Islanders set in which Barry Trotz exploited the Penguins line by getting Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier against Sheahan-Cullen-Patric Hornqvist, Cullen has been a significant step forward from last season and a cut above Sheahan’s work.
But the Penguins still haven’t found a fourth line combination which works.
Sprong’s development has been reduced to praising individual shifts or shot attempts. While some fans insist playing with better players would enhance Sprong’s production, his inability to handle opponents lesser competition has forced the Penguins to ice the shooter for long stretches because he has not earned trust.
Sprong’s overall play has been one reason the Penguins fourth lines are a crater. He has shown recent signs of life. Perhaps as his play improves, the Penguins bottom line’s fortunes will improve. However, as Cullen pointed out Saturday:
“We don’t have time to waste.”
There may be further signs of life on the horizon. Center-slash-left wing Derek Grant is nearly even in all of his statistical categories. His play hasn’t been physical, and he hasn’t created an offensive push, but he is yielded better results in his limited time than the rest of the crew.
Expect a lot more experimentation to find combinations which work, especially in Brassard’s absence. What has to be a strength for the Penguins has thus far proven their weakness. And without Brassard, the Penguins are struggling to ice a competitive third line, too. There will be considerable experimentation ahead with Sheahan and Cullen.
40 percent of any offensive category shouldn’t be a high point. Not on these Penguins. Not with their lofty aspirations.