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.