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10 NHL Insights and Observations: Penguins not getting respect they deserve

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Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.

This week, we look at a well-rounded Pittsburgh team, power plays going in opposite directions, David Pastrnak trying to fill the David Krejci hole, the NHL all-star game and more.

The Pittsburgh Penguins might be the biggest sleeper in the NHL. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins might be the biggest sleeper in the NHL. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

1. The Pittsburgh Penguins were one of the most explosive teams in the league last season (second in goals per game, fourth in power-play percentage), but in the playoffs they got goalie’d by their own goalie. Seriously, just watch the goals the Islanders scored in that series – in which they were largely outplayed – off a collection of wrist shots from distance, and a stunningly bad giveaway that led to a Game 5 double-overtime winner to put the Islanders up 3-2 in the series. The Penguins haven’t won a playoff round (including the play-in) in three years. Even Brian Burke lamented that the team needs to stop the trend of trading first-round picks.

And for the first time in years, I wonder if people are actually sleeping on the Penguins? They are top 10 in virtually every category of note. They are ninth in goals per game, have the fourth best goals against per game, eighth in team corsi at 5v5, sixth in team fenwick at 5v5, seventh in expected goals percentage at 5v5 and seventh in overall goal differential. The one area of note outside the top 10? Their power play, which ranks 11th as of this writing, and it should be noted Evgeni Malkin has only played 12 games (and put up 13 points). Sidney Crosby is still as productive as ever (40 in 34), Jake Guentzel is tied for the 10th most goals in the league, only four defensemen have more points than Kris Letang this season and Evan Rodrigues is having a breakout season. It’s weird to say this about a Sidney Crosby-led Penguins team, but we should probably give them a little more respect than they’ve been getting.

2. Fresh off giving up a shorthanded game-winning goal while at home late in the third, one of the more surprising things across the league is just how bad the Washington Capitals power play has been this season. They have 21 power-play goals this season in 137 opportunities, which is good enough to rank 28th in the league. There are two other teams with 21 power-play goals – the Seattle Kraken and Detroit Red Wings, both of whom have hit that mark in less opportunities. And it’s not like this is a unit that has been going off the rails for years or has really changed who the key players on it are. Over the past five seasons they have ranked fourth, seventh, 12th, 17th and third.

It was only a few years ago, in 2019, when a Peter Laviolette-led Nashville Predators team finished last in power-play percentage and went 0/15 in the playoffs. He had few answers but did take the blame after the season.

But even so, you’d have to think a group of players that has steadily been good to very good on the power play for the better part of a decade should be able to figure out how to be respectable on their own.

So, what’s happening here? The group has become stagnant and predictable. Yes, Alex Ovechkin is the all-time power play goal leader, but that can’t be the only option. He is second in the league in shots on the power play per 60 minutes and he’s tied for 13th in power-play goals with seven, but that’s about all they have.

They need a counterpunch to Ovechkin, which they had last season in T.J. Oshie when they ranked third. Oshie tied for second in the league in power-play goals last season, is one of the best bumper players in the league who understands spacing and how to get open in the slot, and if teams cheat to Ovechkin he can make them pay (he’s nearly a career 15 percent shooter!). Oshie’s only played 18 games this season and they’ve struggled to find any other solutions (Tom Wilson has been featured in Oshie’s spot quite often during his absence and he’s a great player, but that’s probably not the best spot for him).

The usual conductor, Nicklas Backstrom, has only played 14 games and had five power-play assists in that time. You can’t simply replace two players of that stature (Anthony Mantha playing only 10 games hurts, too) but they have to work with what they have and find a more suitable counter move. Without those two, it has been a lot of Ovechkin either shooting, or trying to make plays if the shot isn’t there.

3. On the flip side of things, the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently on pace to have one of the best statistically productive power plays of all-time. They are clicking at 30.5 percent. The only power plays on record with a higher percentage are the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens at 31.9 percent, the 1977-78 New York Islanders at 31.4 percent, and the same Islanders the following season at 31.2 percent.

Of course, last season they were off to a similarly hot start with a 32.4 percent conversion rate through the first 22 games. Then from March 1 through to the end of the season – 34 games – they clicked at 10.3 percent.

So why should we think a similar dip won’t happen again?

How they are achieving success is much different. The unit last season was largely static, everyone had set positions, stood in them, and zipped the puck around. It worked for the first half until teams caught on. This season, they’ve become much more dynamic, shifting guys all over. One shift, Mitch Marner will be on the half-wall, the next, it will be William Nylander. They’ve added high-low plays to their set-up rather than simply teeing up Auston Matthews to shoot off the wall. Look at the movement and purpose here — and their best player doesn’t even touch the puck:

Matthews and John Tavares have already matched their power play goal totals from last season – in 13 and 15 games less respectively. Nylander and Marner have already surpassed last year’s power play goal totals. Plus the team rides their top players on the power play this season – Nylander in particular is up 30 seconds on the power play in time on ice per game and Tavares is close behind. No more splitting up the top players between two units here.

4. Of all the websites out there, of course it’s Wikipedia that has compiled a list of every NHL arena ever, including their capacity. The smallest arena by capacity, would be the Jubilee Arena the Montreal Canadiens played in from 1909-1911 and 1918-1919. As things currently stand, the proposed interim home for the Arizona Coyotes, which would seat roughly 3,200 fans after work would be done to house NHL games, would officially be second. The next smallest capacity in the NHL today is the Canada Life Centre, home of the Winnipeg Jets, that has a capacity of 15,321.

A lot of ink has been spilled on whether hockey really works in Arizona and honestly whether it does or doesn’t isn’t really the point. That capacity is not NHL-caliber. Other than players who are basically out of the league and/or on their third, fourth or fifth chance in the league and have no choice, who would willingly sign to play there? I’d like to think cooler heads will ultimately prevail, and if nothing else, the profitable teams in the league should be banging the walls down complaining about having to prop up this type of proposition, which is something they have already been doing anyway. It is a shame what’s happened here – this was merely 10 years ago and the building was loud.

5. “The Michigan” as it’s known, has become all the rage and yet it was the mere threat of doing it that Jonathan Huberdeau weaponized, freezing defenders and leading to a fairly easy Sam Bennett overtime winner. Look at everyone here stopping to stare as he crouches to potentially cradle the puck on his blade:

As things stand, this move is a loophole and smart players can extort it in all sorts of ways. Teams stopped chasing players behind the net over a decade ago – they are too fast and will just come out with the puck on the other side leading to a great scoring chance. Teams will usually have defensemen stop at the post and if the forward going behind the net goes out to the other side, the defenseman’s partner will assume coverage.

6. Now that he’s leading the league in scoring, Huberdeau is starting to get some much-needed love and respect he deserves. Most people generally knew he was good, but it wasn’t widely known that he was this good. Had NHL players gone to the Olympics, he was on my shortlist of players who would have received a lot more respect when the tournament was over. That has always been one of the underrated benefits of tournaments like this – players getting opportunities to become household names.

For what it’s worth, a few other players I had tabbed as potential breakout candidates included fellow Panther Anton Lundell, who is having a great rookie season in Florida; Ivan Barbashev, who is finally breaking out offensively even if his shooting percentage is sky high (also, he’s a career 18.2 percent shooter in over 300 games!); either of Alex DeBrincat or Jason Robertson, who are both having lights out offensive seasons, were they to make USA; and Martin Necas, who is having a bit of a down year so far and his ice time has fluctuated, including just playing one of his lowest totals of the season versus San Jose, but is as dynamic as most top players in the league in open ice.

7. There are a lot of great stories on the Colorado Avalanche – Nazem Kadri’s career season, Cale Makar’s goal scoring, Devon Toews’ overall play, to name a few – but I can’t help but be drawn to Valeri Nichushkin. The pending UFA is only 26 years old and he’s already two goals away from matching his career high in goals (14), and he’s only played 27 games. Of course, he’s shooting nearly 17 percent and is roughly a career nine percent shooter so that is going to come down to earth, but he should be in line for a career season at the right time, and at still a young enough age to get paid. His story is quite the rollercoaster, though.

Drafted 10th overall in 2013, he made the NHL right away as an 18-year-old even though he had never played on North American ice before. His 14 goals and 34 points as a rookie are still his career highs. The next season, he struggled through training camp with an injury, played four of the team’s first 16 games, and then had to have hip surgery. He returned and played 79 games after that, put up only nine goals and 29 points, and couldn’t come to terms with the Stars on a contract extension. General Manager Jim Nill had this to say at the time: "They know our offer. They know where we're at. It's his decision. I'm not going to stop that. The good news is he's 21 years of age. He's going to play over there and keep developing. I just hope we get a more mature player when he decides to come back over. It's not the end of the world."

He stayed in the KHL for the full two seasons, worked on his game, returned to the Stars and proceeded to score zero goals in 57 games. The Avs signed him to a bargain bin contract – one year, $850K, and made him a checker. They have added penalty killing responsibilities to his game, averaging 35 seconds shorthanded his first season, 1:26 his second season, and now 2:03 this season. He played primarily with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Matt Calvert his first season in Colorado. The following season he was promoted of sorts to play regularly with Tyson Jost and Joonas Donskoi. Now his most common linemates are Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky. That’s a long climb back to being the original impact rookie that started his career alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.

8. For the first time since 2008 the Boston Bruins do not have David Krejci centering their second line. They have some reasonable center options in Erik Haula, Charlie Coyle and maybe if you squint (and if he was healthy) Nick Foligno, but none of them are true second line centers and they don’t have any young players knocking on the door for that lineup spot, either. Enter, splitting up one of the best lines in the league of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak by bumping Pastrnak down to pair up with Taylor Hall and keeping the duo of Marchand and Bergeron together on the top line.

So far this season, Pastrnak has spent just over 241 minutes with Bergeron and Marchand at 5v5, and 258 minutes without them. He has already logged over 270 minutes of 5v5 ice time alongside Taylor Hall, which is the most ice time he has had with a forward not named Marchand or Bergeron at 5v5 since he played nearly 430 minutes with David Krejci… in the 2016-2017 season. The results so far for the line of Hall-Haula-Pastrnak have not exactly been stellar yet, as they’ve played nearly 150 minutes together holding serve with a 52.71% shot share, scoring nine goals, being on for seven against, and an expected goals percentage that’s below water (47.51%). Replacing Krejci was always going to be difficult but even scrounging together a second line that just breaks above even, to go along with an elite top line and an elite power play (clicking over 25%), makes the Bruins a tough out.

9. A few weeks ago, Nathan MacKinnnon’s quote about it being an all-star game, not a participation game went viral. With the all-star game now upon us, it’s really the second half of his quote that didn’t get as much attention that stood out to me. “I look back when we came last, I went and I had a poor season so I knew I shouldn’t have been there, a lot of guys should have been over me. It is what it is. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean a ton.”

There are several guys that don’t deserve to be there, and they know it. And it can’t be a great feeling. Worst of all is the players knowing it doesn’t matter (“it doesn’t mean a ton”) because of how it’s structured.

The NBA doesn’t require a player from each team to be there and the players genuinely care about making the game and are slighted if they don’t. It makes for great debate and entertainment – which is part of what sports are all about! The NHL, on the other hand, has a weekend dedicated to bringing in some players that deserve it, some that don’t, but making sure everyone is represented while also ensuring that the players don’t really care because they know it’s not real. If nothing else, it’s a missed opportunity.

10. That said, we do have to give the NHL kudos for their blackjack meets hockey skills challenge where players have to make 21 in the least number of shots. That’s a fun, creative idea that of course matches up with the Vegas theme. The toughest thing the NHL has to balance is how to create some form of competition – which is at the core of driving entertainment in sports – without physicality. The NBA and MLB have easy paths to doing this. The NHL and NFL don't, and their all-star games suffer accordingly.

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