When Sidney Crosby does not score a point, the Pittsburgh Penguins are 1-9 this season. In fact, the Penguins have relied almost exclusively on their top few players for offense. Fans who watched the Penguins struggle against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Saturday saw what a third line center could mean. Riley Sheahan was painfully noticeable, while Maple Leafs third center, Tyler Bozak shined with a pair of goals.
This season, Crosby accounts for nearly 35% of the Penguins offense. Phil Kessel has participated in almost 39%. Excluding Sheahan’s work as a second line center, Sheahan’s share is 7%.
That is a big problem.
This summer, there was not a shortage of opinions in the Penguins universe assuring fans a third line center was not that big of a deal. Whomever the Penguins settled on, the thinking went, would be fine because the Penguins still had the best 1-2 punch at the top of their depth chart. Even General Manager Jim Rutherford made that reference. So, enter Sheahan.
For the record, Pittsburgh Hockey Now was perhaps the single outlet which strongly opined the importance of a third line center, especially for the Penguins which are a team which relies so heavily on its centers.
Sheahan has goals in two straight games and three total as Penguin, but Sheahan was directly smoked by Toronto Maple Leafs third center Tyler Bozak, twice. Bozak badly beat Sheahan to the net for the Maple Leafs third goal. Bozak indirectly upstaged Sheahan a third time when Sheahan coughed the puck up on the Maple Leafs fourth goal, which was also scored by Bozak.
Sheahan was effectively benched after the Leafs third goal in the first period. He finished with about 6:30 of ice time.
Two weeks ago, the Penguins hopes swelled after drubbing the struggling Flyers and heartless Sabres, but the Penguins have not fared as well against better teams.
The Penguins failed to crack the New York Rangers counter-attack, failed to protect a late two-goal lead against the Islanders before winning in overtime, and trailed the Maple Leafs for over 58 minutes. After beating up a few bad teams, the Penguins have lost two of three against good teams.
Better teams, like the Rangers, Islanders and Maple Leafs, have better top lines, better top defensive pairings and greater offensive depth than teams like the Flyers and Sabres. Depth scoring, as well as puck possession, from the Penguins bottom-six forwards is crucial because the Penguins talent advantage is somewhat mitigated against good teams.
Riley Sheahan in the Red
The Penguins bottom forwards tallied three goals in the last three games, but they gave up more. Bottom six forwards scored five goals against the Penguins.
Despite scoring goals in two straight games, Sheahan has not been productive for the Penguins. He has only 29 shots in 22 games. Sheahan’s stats had recently received an artificial bump for four games when he stepped into second line duty after Evgeni Malkin was injured (2a, 8sog).
Before that, the Penguins used Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist on the third line beside Sheahan to jumpstart the center.
Given the depth of Penguins wingers, at least some offense from the third line should be automatic. Indeed, the third line cannot be a liability, as it was Saturday.
Riley Sheahan blistered a wrister past Rangers goalie Ondrej Pavelic, Thursday. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan offered praise to Sheahan. “It’s a headscratcher to me,” Sullivan lamented why Sheahan hasn’t scored more often.
One obvious reason why Sheahan hasn’t scored more often is his lack of shots and horrible lack of quality shots. Look below–the ice-cold giant blue ocean in the slot and front of the opponents net.
That’s bad. The chart is from Hockeyviz.com. It’s a great site to explore.
The above chart makes it not a headscratcher, but an obvious statement about the Penguins third line center. He isn’t playing in the offensive zone.
The domino effect not only means the Penguins have one less person contributing offense, in some cases, it means one person hindering it.
To repeat, the Penguins are 1-9 when the Crosby does not register a point.
The Metro Division is strong. The Penguins enter gameday just one point ahead of the Rangers for the final playoff position but the Rangers have two games in-hand.
The Penguins need wins and points. 22 games are enough of a sample size. If Sheahan cannot begin to string positive games together, the Penguins need to make a change. A pair of games last week which included a bevy of scouts, so the Penguins may agree…
The playoffs are not guaranteed.
And that is why the Penguins third line center is important. And that is why the Sheahan third line center experiment must soon reach a conclusion. The Penguins need more.