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Time to Make Changes to Penguins Power Play; One Quick Fix
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Time to Make Changes to Penguins Power Play; One Quick Fix

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 18: Pittsburgh Penguins Center Evgeni Malkin (71) celebrates after his goal with Center Sidney Crosby (87), Center Jake Guentzel (59), and Defenseman Kris Letang (58) in the first period during the First Round Stanley Cup Playoff game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers on April 18, 2018 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan threatened changes to the Penguins power play a couple of weeks ago. After another scoreless performance and a shorthanded goal by the New Jersey Devils, the Penguins coach appeared to be resigned to change. After their fourth straight loss, teams nipping at their heals in the playoff race and the 12th shorthanded goal allowed, that’s enough.

Now it’s time to make those changes.

The Penguins five-member unit has been together for a few years. Last year, the Penguins power play was historically good. They set a franchise record with a 27 percent efficiency rating. Phil Kessel popped 92 points with 42 power play points and Evgeni Malkin nearly had a Hart Trophy run with 98 points including 38 on the man-advantage.

When Evgeni Malkin returns, the Penguins power play includes two Hall-of-Famers, three if you count Kris Letang (a debate which we’ll wait a few more years to engage fully), plus Phil Kessel and the irrepressible Patric Hornqvist who is one of the best net-front agitators in the game.

The Penguins have the best personnel and it can be tough to turn away from that, but this season has often seemed like an entitled victory lap instead of a determined push.

“We’re to that point (of making changes),” Mike Sullivan said on Jan. 28 after New Jersey embarrassed the Penguins and their special teams. But Sullivan literally chuckled over the next few days as we media folk fell over ourselves asking about it and trying to figure out what he was going to do.

Spoiler: He didn’t make any changes. He chose to ride through it with the most talented power play unit in the NHL.

This shorthanded goal epidemic can’t continue, nor can the anemic pace. The Penguins face three main problems which have led to the shorties: Turnovers, high forwards not covering defensive responsibilities and the forwards not getting back to the defensive zone to defend or help with the puck. 

Phil Kessel had a single shot in just over 17 minutes of ice time Saturday night as the Pittsburgh Penguins lost a physical battle with the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4. It was just Kessel’s second shot in the last five games.

And Kessel made the epitome of another “hope is not a strategy” pass on the Penguins power play which directly led to the Penguins league-leading 12th shorthanded goal allowed.

“No,” Sullivan said when asked about the Penguins power play. “I thought we kept fighting throughout the course of the game. I give our players a lot of credit for that, but I have nothing more to say about the power play.”

Penguins Power Play Setup

Kessel runs the show on the midwall but the power play has been painfully bad since a nearly historic run in late December to Jan. 2 in which they scored on six of seven opportunities. Since that streak, the Penguins man-advantage is clicking at just 14.3 percent.

The Penguins power play is ranked 24th in that time.

Worse, Since Jan. 2, the Penguins have scored six power-play goals. They’ve allowed–wait for it–wait for it–four shorthanded goals. So, the Penguins special teams are only a +2 in the past five weeks. There should be nothing acceptable about four shorthanded goals and just six power-play goals in five weeks.

The slide has coincided with some pretty bad hockey from Kessel.

As the midwall player, he often becomes the high forward. So, when a shot is blocked or one of the point men pinches, it is Kessel’s responsibility to cycle high and become the second point, or at least be ready to defend.

“We lack a conscience,” Sullivan has repeatedly said.

There will be plenty of calls for a second defenseman to join the Penguins power play, especially with the imminent return of Justin Schultz. That’s the traditional route but it isn’t the best solution, especially as the Penguins have precious little offensive talent on their blue line beyond Letang and Schultz.

The first solution is easier: Swap Kessel for Jake Guentzel on the top unit.

Will anyone argue against Guentzel being more responsible as the high forward? Guentzel’s slick hands would also be a welcome addition to the low zone, as well as the top of the zone. With Guentzel, the Penguins would have the versatility to create movement and still crash the net with multiple players.

Guentzel would also be far better at the puck battles, which Sullivan specifically called out after their loss to Florida, Thursday night. You don’t need three guesses to know which player he didn’t name but referred to when he called out a lost puck battle which cost them 20 seconds on the 5-on-3 power play.

Guentzel adds a dimension and instantly fixes the Penguins shorthanded problem, too.

Without Kessel, the Penguins power play would become more traditional and not be headquartered in the circles. Letang would again run the circus from the point. Heck, the unit may even shoot more.

Letang-Crosby-Malkin-Hornqvist-Guentzel isn’t exactly a bad power play look.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Zane Gearhart

    February 10, 2019 at 10:05 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Taking it one step farther, I’m hoping moving Kessel off the powerplay will finally give him the wake up call he needs. When Phil is on he can sometimes single handedly take over a game and be the difference maker.. but the other side of the coin, man when hes not on he can really hurt our team with his turnovers and lack of effort

  2. Zane Gearhart

    February 10, 2019 at 10:07 am

    Middle line wingers…
    Kessel, HQ, Simon, Pearson should be a strength to this team, having three 20 goal scorers but man all have truly disappeared. I hate breaking up the 1 line that works but it might be worth trying HQ on 1st RW with sid just to try to get him going. Then put rust with Simon and McCann on the 3rd line to create a speed line. That’s assuming geno doesn’t come back for monday.

    • Eric

      February 10, 2019 at 1:34 pm

      Simon SUCKS !!! He is a Nothin Muffin

  3. Ryan Gallier

    February 10, 2019 at 11:15 am

    I also couldn’t agree more. Kessel has been more of a liability for the team than an asset. Sure, Kessel has a great shot, but he has to be in the perfect spot for it. Other than that, he sucks at hockey. He’s always caught flat footed on defense and he makes too many turnovers. I’m sick of watching him play terrible hockey. Sully should give him some kind of wake up call.

    • Dan Kingerski

      February 10, 2019 at 11:31 am

      To say your comment surprised me, Ryan would be an understatement.

      • Ryan Gallier

        February 10, 2019 at 12:14 pm

        I can’t be the only one that thinks this. I watch every period of every game. I’m surprised he’s ONLY a -15 this year with all of the turnovers he’s generated from being out of position and trying to force a pass. Opposing teams already understand his shortcomings. All they need to do is apply some pressure to him while on the powerplay, and he mostly waffles and turns the puck over. Exactly like what the lightning did to him last night. The strategy of staying high in the D-zone and trying to cherry pick on a quick breakout is just NOT WORKING with how we are playing this year. We need players like Guentzel, Rust, and now Bjugstad and McCann who play that 200 foot game and put in the work needed for us to win games. Listen, I’m not trying to be a hater, I love our guys and our team, it’s just very frustrating to watch the same problems with Phil happen night after night and we don’t seem to do anything about it.

        • Dan Kingerski

          February 10, 2019 at 12:31 pm

          A passionate, intelligent response. Whether or not anyone agrees, that’s good stuff. You’re the reason I do this. Thanks!

  4. BIG B

    February 10, 2019 at 11:30 am

    If you want to know what is wrong with the power play and the team in general look no futher than its attempts to score when pulling the goalie. There is no structure and seemingly no plan just a bunch of individual plays from individual players.If there is no solid plan that is on the coach and if there is and the players refuse to execute then it is also on the coach, which means the coach or a certain player who rhymes will Bill Fessel must go.
    The power play did all these same things last year but they finished better. Hitting the net would be a good start and that starts with Kessel and Letang.Giving more touches to the best player in the world would be second, because it seems to me that Crosby rarely gets the puck on too many power plays because the scheme is ran through Phil.
    P.S- Am i the only one who thinks Phil is tanking on purpose to get the coach fired.
    P.S.S – Letang should not be on the with an extra attacker ever because he makes stupid decisions.
    P.S.S.S – A frickin save would also be nice.

    • Dan Kingerski

      February 10, 2019 at 11:34 am

      Lot to unpack there Big B! I should draw a difference between 5v4 and 6v5. Very different. One is practiced daily and has open ice. The other is a chaotic mess of hope.

  5. BIG B

    February 10, 2019 at 11:43 am

    That is why i say Letang should be removed from 6v5 Dan because he makes bad decisions while free-wheeling it as oppossed to the power play.

  6. Randal Stutler

    February 10, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    Phil is an offense only player the Pens can’t afford any longer. I’m Sorry but I watch every game and with the rest the league getting faster everybody has to take the body and help out defensively . I feel sorry for Phills line mates whoever they are because their killing themselves on the boards while he’s out of position looking for a safe spot. The reason he makes so many turnovers is because he just wants to get rid of the puck and not get hit. Now this isn’t to say he wasn’t a big part of the Stanley cups but going forward he needs to go.

  7. Matt Luda

    February 10, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    Yeah, I would swap out Kessel, all right — to another team for draft picks. He’s a yuge defensive and financial liability. Use his $6.8-million salary to create cap space then flip the draft picks plus some combo of Jarry/Maatta/Simon/TBA to the ‘Lanche for MacKinnon . . .

    Guentzel-Crosby-MacKinnon
    Rust-Malkin-Hornqvist
    Pearson-McCann-Bjugstad
    ZAR-Blueger-Wilson/Simon

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