“I don’t yet have an answer for you” has been a common phrase from head coach Mike Sullivan in the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp. Sometimes the phrase is preceded or proceeded by an explanation that coaches are still evaluating or giving players chances to provide the answers. That’s the reason for training camp and the preseason, after all.
The positive spin is that Sullivan has an open camp. He is letting players compete to earn roles and positions. That certainly is exciting, and it gets everyone adrenaline up just a smidge, even for a training camp featuring one of the oldest rosters in the NHL.
The other take on it is that Sullivan doesn’t have many options, either. The power play is a prime example. Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, power-play construction in the first week or two of the Pittsburgh Penguins season will be difficult. The power play will be sans two of its primary cogs. Malkin will be out for months.
“So we’ll try multiple guys to answer that question. And I think we have a certain philosophy with our power play and how it should operate, and some of the principles that we put in place here make them predictable for one another,” Sullivan said this week. “I don’t know that will change drastically. I think personnel obviously will have a lot to do with it…
“So we don’t have a definitive answer yet, but we have some ideas on who could potentially go there. And we’ll use the exhibition season once we get some of our established players in the lineups. We’ll start to tinker with the power play combinations.”
Pittsburgh Penguins Power Play
Sullivan doesn’t have many options. This week he downplayed the idea that he could opt for two defensemen at the top of the zone. Last season, Jared McCann capably filled in for Malkin during Malkin’s injury absence, and the power play clicked. The Penguins won the Metro Division.
But McCann is gone to the hockey fishbowl in Toronto, and Malkin is on an exercise bike in the weight room for a couple of more months.
The Penguins’ power play wasn’t great for part of last season, and assistant coach Todd Reirden often helped point-man Kris Letang schematically keep it afloat. Eventually, the Penguins finished fourth in the league at over 23%.
The Penguins surged when McCann took over for the injured Malkin as the second point on PP1. Malkin won’t be back until December-ish this season, and PHN is hardpressed to figure out who may take the spot on the top of the power play with Letang. Who is defensively responsible, has playmaking ability, can skate the puck up the ice, and has a good shot?
Bryan Rust? Kasperi Kapanen? Danton Heinen? Sullivan has not yet tipped his hand, but it looks like he needs Kapanen elsewhere.
The Penguins also need to upgrade the penalty-killing units. That’s been a particular point of emphasis in the training camp and practices. The Penguins finished 27th last season. That’s brutal and will do nothing to offset the team’s weakened power play.
The Penguins don’t have many options for the PK, either. It appears Sullivan is auditioning, if not molding Kapanen for the PK role. Kapanen’s speed, physicality, and ability to skate with the puck could make him a dynamic option.
“Well, our penalty kill has to get better. There’s no question about that. That’s something that we’ve identified early on. We’ve made adjustments along the way, and particularly late in the season to our penalty kill. And then obviously it’s been a point of emphasis this week and this particular part of the training camp because that’s an area where we know we need to improve and try to get better,” Sullivan said.
The Penguins killed just 77.4% of the man advantages against them.
If the special teams differential is a big negative, the Penguins will not be near the top of the Metropolitan Division. Perhaps not a playoff spot. The Penguins will not be overwhelmingly good at 5v5 until the lineup is intact and won’t have the firepower to overcome poor special teams.
Dominating scoring chances and the puck without Crosby and Malkin is just not happening, and Sullivan’s urgency to find players willing and able to kill penalties suggests he has already calculated that fact.
We will assume UFA signee Brock McGinn will replace Brandon Tanev on the PK, but will Jeff Carter be that gritty third-line special teams type? Evan Rodrigues?
Kapanen again played in the exhibition game on Friday night as one of only a few Pittsburgh Penguins NHL regulars. One of his roles was the top penalty killer, though he was not on the ice when the Buffalo Sabres scored a power-play goal.
“We looked at our team this year. We looked at our coaching staff. The first question I always pose to our coaches is how do we get better as a staff? How do we do a better job of helping our players have success.”
With a strong performance on Friday night, perhaps Drew O’Connor could insert himself into the top-12 forwards group if he’s also willing to block shots and do the dirty work of the PK unit.
Assistant coach Mike Vellucci, who elevated from head coach of the WBS Penguins to assistant coach last year, helms the penalty-killing units. Schematic breakdown appeared to be a factor on Friday night when the PK left large Buffalo forward Tage Thompson uncovered near the net–then alone in front of the net to score a power-play goal.
The Penguins have an uphill climb ahead of them, and special teams can be a difference-maker. Sullivan has a couple of weeks to make positive the differential a positive.