COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Penguins have gotten off to a strong start in the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season. They're second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference, and a five-game winning streak still has them sitting comfortably in playoff position even after dropping two straight to the East-leading New Jersey Devils.
Consecutive losses are little cause for concern, especially at the hands of the defending conference champions. But after 13 games played (already more than 25 percent of the league's circus season), troubling patterns are emerging.
Malkin and Neal torched the NHL scoring races last season. Malkin finished with a career-high 50 goals in 75 games en route to capturing his second Art Ross Trophy (50-59-109) and first Hart Trophy as league MVP. Neal set career-highs in goals (40) and points (40-41-81), finishing fourth in the NHL in goals and first in power play goals (18).
Early in 2013, their chemistry is of no concern. They share perhaps the best two-man telepathy of all Penguins forwards and are still finding their share of offensive production. Malkin is sixth in the NHL with 16 points and tied for first with 13 assists. Neal's 8 goals are fifth-most in the NHL, and he's tied for the league lead with 5 power-play goals.
However, break their statistics down to situational scoring and one finds their even-strength (ES) numbers have fallen off a cliff.
Here are their stats through 13 games:
Malkin: 3 G, 13 A, 16 PTS, minus-2, 24 PIM, 19:29 ATOI, 2 PPG, 7 PPA, 40 SOGNeal: 8 G, 2 A, 10 PTS, minus-6, 12 PIM, 17:44 ATOI, 5 PPG, 2 PPA, 43 SOG
In percentages, Malkin and Neal are making their hay on the man-advantage. More than half of Malkin's points have come on the man-advantage, with two of his three goals on the season scored on the power play. Neal is having similar trouble scoring at even strength. Five of his eight goals and both of his assists on the season have come on the power play--70 percent of his points this season are man-advantage points.
Silver linings being what they are, Pittsburgh's power play has excelled this season with a 28-percent conversion rate, third-best in hockey. Malkin and Neal have been a large part of that success. But in their first season without Kunitz as a regular linemate, the man-advantage has been their only offensive threat.
Neal's power-play dominance isn't necessarily a new thing. Almost half of his 40 goals in 2011-12 came on the PP (18) as well as 37 percent of his total scoring. His total scoring has jumped to a power-play heavy 70-30 split, as Neal has just 3 ES points this season.
His last ES goal came against the Ottawa Senators two weeks ago.
Malkin's percentages are similarly skewed toward the man-advantage. More than half of his 16 points have been scored on the power play after scoring just 31 percent of his 109 points on the power play a season ago.
The changes in scoring have come in concert with the change in the line. Zach Boychuk, Eric Tangradi, Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey have all taken turns on Malkin's left wing and have accounted for exactly zero points on that line.
In total, those players have just points all season--a goal and an assist from Kennedy--and neither of his points were scored while playing on the second line.
While there's still the argument to be made for Jeffrey getting an extended look on the second line (he was arguably the Penguins' first-line center in 2011 when Malkin and Sidney Crosby were lost to injuries), it still remains that not only have those four failed to produce in Kunitz's absence on the second line, but Malkin and Neal's production has also fallen off.
While the second line has struggled, the reunited first line of Kunitz, Crosby and Pascal Dupuis has surged. According to Left Wing Lock, the trio have combined for 9 goals at even strength, second-most in the NHL behind only Buffalo's top line of Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville.
Would it be worth breaking up that unit to try to get Malkin and Neal going at even strength?
History suggests Crosby can produce with almost anyone. Beyond maintaining his own pace, he also elevates the production of those around him. Crosby scored 25 points in 14 games (1.8 points per game) last season in March and April, playing at ES with Kennedy and Matt Cooke as linemates.
In their games without Crosby, Kennedy and Cooke averaged .48 and .40 points per game, respectively. Each scored 11 points in 14 games with Crosby as their centerman, a .79 points per game pace.
In just that small sample size, Crosby effectively doubled the production of Pittsburgh's regular third-line wingers. Through 13 games this year, the two have accounted for a total of just three goals and six points.
It's safe to assume that whoever skates with Crosby will see his point totals increase without harming his production.
Conversely, history suggests that Malkin is a world-beater when paired with the proper linemates, but much less so without them. While he still has Neal to play with, Kunitz clearly brought something to that line that no one else has been able to replace.
Pittsburgh's top line might be producing with the best of them, but the new-look second line is struggling in equal proportion. Crosby has turned third-liners into useful wingers in the past.
Perhaps the Penguins should see if their $104-million man can turn the trick once again in an effort to get the second line back to where it was a season ago.
James Conley covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and is a Penguins contributor at The Hockey Writers and Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. He owns the Pittsburgh Sports Blog Slew Footers and has attended Penguins home games with credentials.