The numbers are staggering. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan shuffled his lines before the Saturday showdown against the Vancouver Canucks not on a whim but a near extreme lack of production. From goals to scoring chances, the Penguins are currently a one-line team.
And that doesn’t bode well.
Of course, Evgeni Malkin has been skating and will eventually rejoin the Penguins lineup. Things should improve. Of course, things can’t get worse than the Penguins second line and its faint pulse of production.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, Sidney Crosby rounding into form coincided with top-line RW Bryan Rust’s lower-body injury. The Penguins top line has not only persevered without Rust, but it has also elevated with Evan Rodrigues.
But moving Rodrigues to the top line pulled the rug from beneath the middle six. Go figure.
Sullivan put Kasperi Kapanen on Teddy Blueger’s line and promoted Danton Heinen to the second line with Jeff Carter and Jason Zucker. After shuffling the lines, the Penguins scored a pair of 5v5 goals on Saturday night against the wilting Vancouver Canucks.
“I thought we generated a fair amount of scoring opportunities. And so, we certainly had a lot of looks at the net. I thought we had a lot of shots on goal,” Sullivan said. “I thought every line had opportunities. So I think that’s progress.”
Progress might be kind. The goals belonged to the top line. The Penguins other forward lines were essentially even or behind, except for the Sidney Crosby top line, the predominant offense driver.
The Crosby line had a 13-3 scoring chance advantage. The Teddy Blueger and Jeff Carter lines eeked by at 7-5. Neither scored, and the Carter line had zero high-danger scoring chances, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Although Penguins fans have delivered it with some sugar, Kapanen has deservedly been the lightning rod for criticism and angst. Kapanen has five goals this season, but that includes a three-goal game. He has goals in just three games this season and was benched for most of the third period in the Penguins 5-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 1.
For the win over Vancouver on Saturday, Sullivan dropped Kapanen to the Penguins third line with Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn.
“I thought Kappy was…yeah…I thought he was–he was better tonight. You know, it’s a little different look playing with Teddy and (McGinn), but those guys are gritty payers. They’re straight-line guys. They’re workers. Quite honestly, they’re workers,” Sullivan said. “They hunt pucks, and they force turnovers, and they still have some offensive instincts. So I thought they got Kappy the puck in certain areas tonight. He had a couple of good looks. He had one in the first period that was right in the slot…”
It wasn’t quite a ringing endorsement as Sullivan and the team tries to get Kapanen to his A-game. Thus far this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have seen anything but.
The statistics are brutal.
Penguins Lines–All Crosby
The Penguins top line with Guentzel, Crosby, and Rodrigues not only had all of the goals on Saturday, but they had one less scoring chance than the Carter and Blueger lines combined (13-14). The Crosby line has dwarfed the middle two lines combined.
**Crosby Line Scoring chance ratio last five games: 61-24.
**Middle six scoring chance ratio last five games: 46-44.
The Crosby line has three goals at even strength over the last five games. That’s not a ton, but it’s still better than the rest of the Penguins lines.
The Carter line has just one goal. The Blueger line has one goal, too.
That’s a gaping hole in the middle of the Penguins lineup. The middle-six has essentially gone dark, which makes me somewhat regret the piece from about two weeks ago: “E-Rod and Penguins Bottom-Six Flip Script.”
Of course, the Pittsburgh Penguins Blueger line is doing its job. The team does not rely upon them for offense, and when they chip in, it’s a bonus. In the last five games, the Blueger line has nearly as many scoring chances (21) as the Carter line (25).
One interesting side note, Sullivan has more often deployed the Carter line for defensive zone faceoffs against Vancouver, but that was a one-off.
If you had Evan Rodrigues on the shortlist of Penguins MVPs through 25 games, pat yourself on the back, but it’s true. Perhaps no skater has been more consistently productive than Rodrigues. Removing Rodrigues from the bottom-six in various roles has inexplicably gutted the Penguins offense.
Add the lack of Pittsburgh Penguins offense to the list of problems between the Penguins and a firm playoff spot. It’s somewhat unexpected that Zucker, Carter, and Kapanen cratered, but at least they’ve been consistent. Excluding brief bursts, the line doesn’t have much to show for their effort.
And so, the experimentation has begun.
The lines will get another good jolt when Malkin comes back later this month or next. Perhaps Malkin can kickstart Kapanen’s season, but that would also require Kapanen playing a better brand of hockey which goes between the dots more often and plays with the puck below the dots.
If things don’t improve, it will be a long couple or few weeks before Malkin returns. And after Malkin returns, the Penguins will still rely on Kapanen or Zucker, or both, to up their game. The middle-six has not been good enough, and the numbers are staggering.