The Power PlayPosted: 12/12/2011
Alright, first time in like three weeks that I don’t have to write about anything with the words “Britain” or “European Union” in it, so I’m finally going to write some stuff about hockey.
And I want to write about the Penguins power play. I’m quite confident that it will piss a lot of people off. But it will be more pleasant than dedicating this post to all of the other bad news going around.
It is in my humble opinion that the Penguins power play is better without Sidney Crosby. Statistics also confirm this, in the seven games Crosby played before sitting out the last two, the team had gone 4 for 28 on the PP, which means they were about 14.2%. In the two games since that (I know its not a big sample but hold on), they’re 2 for 8, which is good for 25%. Overall the Pens are 17.9% on the season, (19/106). I believe there is a very fundamental reason for why the PP has struggled more with Crosby on it than with him off it. When he’s in the lineup, the Pens typically take Chris Kunitz off the top PP unit, but that upsets the balance of the unit. In the same way that the system and coaching of the Penguins penalty kill has turned the PK into one of the most dominant ones in the NHL, the Pens have finally developed a system that has made their PP really good.
When the PP is firing on all cylinders the lineup has been Kunitz-Malkin-Neal up front with Sullivan-Letang at the points. The reason why this group of 5 has been so good is because they’re all doing things that they are quite comfortable with doing. Kunitz posts up in front of the goalie and legitimately acts like he’s fighting off a bunch of dudes trying to take his wallet or something. Neal controls the area from the center of the circles up and just destroys things with his wrist shot. Malkin and Sullivan operate at the half walls and have a real knack for throwing sick passes to one another, and then not shooting, but I digress. Letang works as the stable defensive presence who also has a wicked slapper, that is wildly erratic, which is good because it unnerves the penalty killers of the other team who are constantly fearing getting struck in the head when they’re covering Malkin who’s 30 feet from the net. It maybe isn’t the most normal PP but it has kept the Pens in the top 10 in the league for most of the season.
Again as I mentioned earlier, the change the Penguins coaching staff seems to make when Crosby is in the line-up is to take Kunitz off and rearrange every other position. Then you are looking at a line-up that features Neal-Crosby-Malkin up front with Sullivan and Letang in the back. This moves Neal to the front of the net, and Crosby and Malkin both just sort of skate around and try to find the puck. This isn’t that much of a “system” as it is saying “we have two of the absolute best players in the league, we’ll just leave it up to them to score and we’ll just put this other guy, because he’s pretty tall, in front of the net.” The fact of the matter is that this technique doesn’t work. If it did, it would have been decided long ago that the top power play would be a combination of Crosby, Malkin, and Staal (who is taller and heavier than Neal, and has been with the team since 06-07, before either Neal or Kunitz). But it takes more than that.
The reason why the simplest solution is not the best is because the team is giving up competitive advantages. I would not argue that Neal is a better offensive player than Kunitz, as it stands now he’s currently pacing for more than 40 goals this year which is amazing by any standard. But Neal is not better at playing the role of the “goalie screener” on the power play. A good example of this can be found in Detroit, Tomas Holmstrom is not a good hockey player, at all, but he still goes out with the top power play in Detroit because he’s really good at taking the abuse that comes with playing directly in the goalie’s mouth and not giving up on it. Kunitz has learned to do the same, and is the best fit for that role on the Penguins team. James Neal, at least this year, has been playing incredible old time hockey. He doesn’t necessarily score highlight reel goals, but nonetheless, its been a really long time since I’ve seen anyone score more goals where they simply beat the goaltender with a really good shot. I’m not sure that Crosby and Malkin, in either of their careers, have scored as many 15 foot wrist shot goals as Neal already has this season. Let’s also not forget that Neal’s 9 power play goals are as many as Malkin and Kunitz have so far this year total (each).
So what does this mean? In the absolutely horrible event that Crosby has to sit for a long time again, it means absolutely nothing, the Pens will carry on, business as usual, as they always do. If Crosby is able to return to the line-up soon, then there is a bigger question to be answered – I just hope the coaching staff will seek to answer it differently.
A few more caveats both pertaining to the PP and other things.
- If Crosby does come back and starts playing on the other PP with say Staal and Kennedy, you can’t even tell me that that wouldn’t still be really dangerous. Also if you apply the exact same system to that group and put Martin and Dupuis on the back line that unit might be able to challenge the other one for which is actually better.
- Steve Sullivan represents the latest in the line of “diamond-in-the-rough bargain veteran pickups by Ray Shero.” He’s just done everything that’s been asked of him, and he’s provided pretty decent offense when its been needed. Despite all of that, I wonder if the Penguins could consider taking him off the top unit of the PP if Crosby can get back within the next few games. Throughout it all, they’ve always tried to force Malkin into being the point player on the PP, but now that the Pens have a really good shooter and a good down low guy, and neither of them are Crosby or Malkin, I wonder if it might be wise to try Crosby there – Crosby has always been really good when he’s presented with a challenge so this might be a good exhibition, and it should be noted that Sullivan scored 2 of the 4 PP goals when Crosby was in the line-up, and both of them were scored much closer to the net than a point player typically would find themselves. You know Crosby would be even better at finding those opportunities.
- I think I understand why everyone hates Chris Kunitz. In the post-lockout era of the NHL, Kunitz is pretty much the first and only player the Pens have had on their roster who constitutes a “mid-career” scorer. To this point Penguins fans have always been spoiled with either incredible young stars, grisled veterans who find themselves rejuvenated for a year by playing with said young stars, or a bunch of grinders who accept almost the league minimum to have the chance to play on a championship caliber team. Kunitz isn’t like that, he joined the team in his late 20s after having been in the league for 6 full seasons already, he came to the team as a proven 20 goal/ 50 point type of player, he still is today. In addition to good production, he also is a good locker room presence, a physically sound player, and I’m pretty sure the most productive line-mate for Sid over the course of Sid’s career. Despite all of that, people still seem to dislike him. I believe it all boils down to his salary cap number. As the only forward who can really be viewed as a mid-career scorer, he is the only forward on the team who comes close to having a fair market contract value. His cap number came with him when he came from the Ducks, and that shows how much teams that aren’t guaranteed to be as competitive as the Penguins have to pay to bring in (or in their case, keep) decent talent. Further, his $3.75 million cap hit is based on 07-08 money, if he had left in the offseason this coming summer, he likely would have made $4.5-$5 million on a team that was desperate for scoring. Thus, the fact that Kunitz resigned with the Penguins for the same figure should actually be viewed as a great move by Ray Shero, and a hometown discount given by Chris Kunitz.
- To compare, the other mid-career players of major consequence on the Penguins roster are Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, and Paul Martin. They make $4 million, $4.5 million, and $5 million respectively – thus Kunitz isn’t getting overpaid or underproducing, he’s getting paid what good, experienced players make in the NHL.