Things could get tense sooner than later. The Pittsburgh Penguins have scored three goals in their last three games and prime culprits for the offensive thud are relied-upon players Jake Guentzel and Kasperi Kapanen. Shots haven’t been an issue for the top wingers, but lighting the lamp has. It’s a continuation of problems that plagued the Penguins at the end of last season, but their goose eggs are an even bigger problem now.
First, we’ll get the obligatory caveats out of the way: It’s early in the season. There are 73 games and six months remaining in the NHL regular season. They’re good players.
I think that’s all of the platitudes.
Now, Kasperi Kapanen and Jake Guentzel have combined for one goal. Guentzel has four points (1-3-4) in eight games. Kapanen has four points (0-4-4) in eight games.
And neither is enough for well-paid, top-six wingers on a team that counts them as primary sources of offense.
“We have good players up and down the lineup, and you might be playing with different guys, but you know how they play, and you’ve got to build chemistry right away,” Guentzel said Thursday. “So I’ve got to be better, and I’ve just got to try and help as much as I can, and I’ve got to start producing.”
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Guentzel’s advanced metrics are well above last year’s pace and slightly above his career norms. Missing the end of training camp when he tested positive and had to sit out for 10 days was a setback, but only a 10-day setback.
Guentzel is on the ice for about 55% of shot attempts-for and 53% of the scoring chances. His expected goals-for is about 58%. All in all, those are solid numbers that indicate more offense is coming.
Guentzel has a distinguished track record of performing well. Either beside Sidney Crosby, or (even better, believe it or not) beside Evgeni Malkin. If Guentzel had not disappeared in the playoffs, this probably wouldn’t be a concern. Unfortunately, his flashes of skating and offense generation have been counter-balanced by invisibility, too.
The Metro Division is too tight, too good, to lose games to the New Jersey Devils when Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter are in the lineup.
In his exit interview last season, Guentzel was blunt.
“I’ve got to find a better way to produce and do my job there, so I take responsibility for that and I let a lot of people down. But I’ve just got to find a way to put the puck in and make plays and be better there.”
So far, it hasn’t gone a good way.
As my Canadian friends say, I don’t mean to put the boots to you, but… If Guentzel can’t drive offense without Crosby or Malkin, or either at their best, what does that say? And what are the bigger implications for a $6 million player?
Kapanen, 25, appeared to heed head coach Mike Sullivan’s challenge. Kapanen changed his lifestyle this offseason, he did the training, the prayers, and the vitamins to get in shape. In the preseason, it was a consensus among all of us who watched him daily that a breakout year with monster numbers was coming.
Four games into the Pittsburgh Penguins season, Kapanen was upbeat.
“Obviously, you want to score as many goals as possible right off the hop, but I’d be more worried if I didn’t have chances,” Kapanen said last Saturday. “And I’ve had a lot of those. It’s just right now, it’s hitting sticks, or it’s hitting posts, (or) I’ve barely missed the net. It’s frustrating, but it’s only four games into the season..”
Four important games later, Drew O’Connor and Danton Heinen are scoring. Dominik Simon, Brock McGinn, and even Brian Boyle are creating offense.
So far, the only thing monstrous about Kapanen’s season is the lack of production. His advanced stats don’t show great chances, and despite being on a line with Guentzel, Kapanen is underwater.
Kapanen’s superficial stats are good. He’s on the ice for about 55% of shots-for, and his expected goals-for are at 53%. However, he’s even in goals-for and goals-against (3-3), underwater on scoring chances (49%), and well below par with 45% of high-danger chances.
In other words, Kapanen is attempting shots, or his linemates are attempting them, and they’re doing OK with scoring chances but giving up better ones.
That’s No Bueno, especially for someone who showed he could play end wall to end wall as well as Kapanen.
Perhaps Kapanen is gripping the stick too tightly? Or perhaps this is Kapanen: a dynamic skating, puckhandling, hard-charging 15-20 goal player who tantalizes but is a streaky middle-six winger.
If it’s the latter, that also poses questions for his future because his contract is up after this season, and he will be an RFA who likely wants a pay raise on his $3.2 million salary.
A 15-goal, 40 point player, doesn’t get much more than $4 million, even when the GMs are drunk with lust and their owner’s money on free-agent frenzy day.
At this stage in his career, with parts of five NHL seasons experience, Kapanen will soon be what he will become (unless he’s the next Bryan Rust who becomes an offensive dynamo at 28-years-old).
Kapanen can carry a line with a mediocre center or a defensive pivot. We’ve seen it in Toronto and again in Pittsburgh when he produced with Evan Rodrigues and Teddy Blueger in the middle.
We’ve seen his high-end capability when he and Evgeni Malkin torched the NHL last March, before Malkin’s knee injury.
It’s there. That’s why Sullivan pushed him to become the elite player they both think he can be.
But Kapanen has to do it for more than weeks at a time. His career-high remains 20-goals set back in 2018-19 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s time he sets forth the career year that converts potential into production.
The Pittsburgh Penguins need it badly. A primary scoring threat that isn’t scoring isn’t much of a threat or an asset. After their rough week, the Penguins are in last place in the Metro Division (tied with four teams at eight points).
For Kapanen, it’s go-time. Or this conversation and the solutions get a lot more serious.