Patric Hornqvist immediately shook his head and dismissed the question with his usual bouncing off the walls energy. Nah, he said when asked if the concussion he suffered at mid-season affected his performance afterward. He says no, but the numbers and the eyes agree that something did. Patric Hornqvist was on a furious goal-scoring pace, and then…he wasn’t.
The report cards will be a continuing series on Pittsburgh Hockey Now (PHN) through May. As we did last season, we will grade many of the Penguins players using a combination of the eye test, analytics, and input from hockey sources. Most content will be free, though some will be placed on the PHN Extra subscription side, too.
Hornqvist turned 32-years-old on January 1, in the middle of the first year of a new five-year, $26.5 million deal. He suffered his first concussion on Nov. 23 against Boston while he was on pace for a career-high 35 goals. Hornqvist returned on Dec. 1 then netted a hat trick on Dec. 4 against Colorado.
The three-goal, four-point outburst was a much-needed highpoint for the Penguins who were struggling to find identity, points, motivation, or any signs of life.
Through the dark–very dark–first half of the season it was Hornqvist who asserted himself as the Penguins emotional leader. It was his intensity and unshakeable belief things would get better which greatly helped the Penguins. When other players sat, heads down with deep breaths and sighs, Hornqvist stood up.
Literally, he stood up after games to face the media and forcefully said things would get better. He was the same on the inside of the room as the outside.
In the first half of the season, Hornqvist poured 15 goals and 11 assists in his first 35 games before the All-Star break. But Hornqvist’s best of times quickly became the worst of times.
He suffered another concussion on Jan. 8, just over one month since his first head trauma. Though he returned on Jan. 19, then had the bye-week for additional healing, Hornqvist was not the same player.
When he and the Penguins began the stretch run on Jan. 28, Hornqvist was a full participant. However, his goal on Jan. 6 was his last until March 1. His even strength goal drought lasted even longer than Phil Kessel’s two-month drought. Hornqvist’s dry spell at even strength lasted from Jan. 6 to March 31.
“It’s just (that) I didn’t play well. I had that slump there for a long time. It’s hard to get out of those when you get in those,” Hornqvist said on locker cleanout day earlier this month. “It feels like you’re doing the right thing and the puck doesn’t want to go your way.”
Fortunately, Hornqvist played a hard game through March after being paired with newly installed third line center Nick Bjugstad. The pair reached ridiculous levels of analytic dominance, even as they searched for goals. Hornqvist channeled his goal scoring frustrations into a suffocating forecheck and created turnovers. He also created offensive possession.
“And then you get frustrated, and that’s probably the worst thing you can do,” Hornqvist said. “But I learned a lot from this season.”
After the final game (you know the result) as disbelief and disappointment hung in the air of the locker room, Hornqvist stormed over to Penguins center Nick Bjugstad for a big hug and manly handshake. Praise poured from Hornqvist for his new center who played the game the right way.
The Penguins Swedish blondes (Bjugstad is American but of Swedish descent) punished opponents by taking 58% of the scoring chances and 67% of the high-danger chances. There were stretches of big games for the Penguins when the line achieved nearly 80% of the opportunities. Overall, the pair scored 73% of the goals, too (eight goals-for, only three goals-against).
If Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan made any mistakes in Round One, it was separating those two.
Hornqvist also had big numbers with Sidney Crosby, but those occurred mainly in the first half of the season. Hornqvist and Crosby also popped nearly 59% of the goals-for and 61% of the scoring chances.
Despite forming a dominant line with Evgeni Malkin in the previous season, Hornqvist and Malkin bubbled to just above average this season. Unfortunately, that fits with Malkin’s season-long struggles and return-to-sender attitude of the Penguins system.
Hornqvist also struggled with Derick Brassard, until the GM Jim Rutherford traded Brassard and Riley Sheahan for Bjugstad and Jared McCann. The Brassard-Hornqvist numbers were below 45% for everything.
*All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com —Check out the Hornqvist lines.
Hornqvist Season Grade: C+
Hornqvist’s work with Bjusgstad in the final six weeks was almost everything the Penguins coaches implored their team to be. They forechecked the daylights out of opponents, punished opponents in the corner, created puck possession below the dots which forced defenders to work harder, and went to the net.
They didn’t post big offensive totals. Had they scored commensurate with their chances, Hornqvist’s season and outlook would be dramatically different. Their 8-3 goals scored ratio is good, but eight goals aren’t enough for Hornqvist who is paid to light the lamp.
After much thought, we added the + to his grade for his off-ice leadership and work. It would have been easy to sulk with his teammates or ignore the dire situation in which the Penguins were swimming. Leaders like Hornqvist kept the team afloat long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
At 32-years-old, Hornqvist is not a sure bet to return to the Penguins next season, but he would be sorely missed on the ice and off. The slump was whatever it was; due to the concussion effects, lousy luck, frustration or all of the above and more. However, there is no reason to believe that Hornqvist is slowing down. His play away from the puck was as good, if not better, than ever.
If only a few more pucks had gone his way, that grade would be much higher.