Are Mike Johnston’s Pittsburgh Penguins Backsliding?


If hockey fans were to pick up the sports page today and glance at the NHL standings, they would see what they usually see at this point in December — the Pittsburgh Penguins at or near the top of the Eastern Conference and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin among the league’s point leaders. Considering the Penguins’ Metropolitan Division leading 18-6-3 record, fans of the black and gold should be feeling pretty good about their team at this point, right?

On the face of things, sure. What’s not to like? The team is consistently winning, Crosby and Malkin are healthy and productive, and Marc-Andre Fleury is having a solid regular season. What a minute, that sounds exactly like last season, doesn’t it? Yes, you say, but these are the new and improved Pittsburgh Penguins — new GM, new head coach, new players, and new system. This time their success is legitimate. Right?

A month and a half ago, the answer was an emphatic yes, but now, I’m not so sure. Some familiar patterns are beginning to reemerge with this team and it’s a bit disconcerting.

Head coach Mike Johnston’s emphasis coming in to the organization was puck possession. He and GM Jim Rutherford, both strong advocates of the use of advanced statistics in guiding hockey decision-making, recognized the correlation between a team’s ability to possess the puck and post season success. They also identified the Penguins as a team deficient in this area, especially in the playoffs.

For the first month and a half of the season, it was clear that we were seeing something new from the Penguins — puck possession through controlled passing, a commitment to team defense, and opportunistic shooting. As of late, however, we see less and less of these things that earlier in the season so effectively transformed the team into something greater than just the sum of its superstar parts.

Old tendencies seem to be creeping back into the Penguins’ style of play. Over the last ten games or so, certain players seem to be defaulting back to their pre Mike Johnston habits.

Unfortunately, two of the main offenders are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. All too frequently, they seem to be abandoning the basic tenets of their coach, preferring instead to rely on their superior talent to overcome opponents.

The problem is the fact that their teammates, the majority of whom are role players, are compelled to break from the system as well in order to adapt to the style of play dictated by their captains. These are players whose impact can only be felt when they are allowed to apply their specific skill sets within the context of the team’s overall scheme.

When the system breaks down, however, these players become marginalized, diminishing the overall effectiveness of the team.

Is this infidelity to the system showing up in the win loss column? No, and it probably won’t, but the recent regime change in Pittsburgh didn’t occur because the team wasn’t winning enough regular season hockey games or failing to make the playoffs under the old style of play.

Have the Penguins sustained multiple injuries to critical players? Absolutely, but that doesn’t justify a disregard for the system, even by superstar players. If anything, adherence to the coach’s strategic philosophy becomes even more critical when the talent pool becomes depleted.

If you remember, some of the most impressive extended winning streaks posted by the Penguins in recent years occurred with Crosby and/or Malkin out of the lineup. Deprived of their most talented players, those Penguins’ teams understood the necessity for a strict adherence to Coach Dan Bylsma’s system – each man accountable to his teammates and sticking to his niche.

I am no Pierre McGuire, but with regard to the current Pittsburgh Penguins, these are the trends I see:

Turnovers as a result of a single player who gets it in his head that he can carry the puck through two or three defenders in the offensive zone — The last time I checked, Mario Lemieux is retired.

Low shot volume on power plays — Shoot the puck! It’s like watching Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, and Marques Haynes out there. I keep waiting for the CONSOL Energy Center sound man to pipe in the music to Sweet Georgia Brown. The passing is pretty, but excessive. Too many times the power play expires before the Penguins even get off as few as three shots.

Passing up shot opportunities at even strength — Again, shoot the puck! Not every goal can be a layup. Get people in front of the net and let fly. Forcing that one extra pass to set up the pretty goal more times than not results in a turnover. The Penguins have to make every offensive zone possession count. Keep in mind, the coach has made clear that he wants ten shots taken in the first ten minutes of each game. Too often his team has failed to comply. Why?

Risky low percentage passing – Puck possession is the name of the game this season. Long stretch passes into traffic is just giving the puck away, and careless passes back to the point in the offensive zone serve up breakaways to opponents.

Puck possession for the Penguins has declined in recent weeks, as statistics bare out. In the world of analytics, a player’s Corsi for measure indicates to what extent his team is controlling the puck with him on the ice. The idea is that to shoot the puck a team has to possess the puck, so a Corsi For measure totals all shots taken by a player’s team — including blocks and misses – while he is on the ice.

There is also a Corsi Against measure for a player, totaling all of the opposing team’s shots taken – including blocks and misses — with him on the ice, so using the following formula CF/(CF + CA), a player can be assigned a Corsi For percentage.

A percentage above 50% is good, because it means the team was controlling the puck more often than not with the player on the ice.

The most valid Corsi For percentage should only include five on five situations when the game is close – within one goal in the first or second periods or tied in the third period. This eliminates special teams and blowout situations where the statistics can skew the measure one way or the other.

For the first half of the season, the Corsi For percentages for each of Penguins’ players, almost to a man, were above 50%, with Crosby and Malkin above 60%. Clearly, early on at least, the team was buying into Mike Johnston’s philosophy.

Today, however, the picture is much different. Sidney Crosby’s Corsi For percentage sits at 55.9% — very good, but clearly heading in the wrong direction. Similarly, Evgeni Malkin’s Corsi For percentage has dropped significantly since the first half of the season – 53.8%.

What’s worse is how the rest of the team is trending: Blake Comeau 51.4%, Nick Spaling 51.3%, Brandon Sutter 46.9%, Zach Sill 45.7, Craig Adams 45.3, Steve Downie 45.0%, Marcel Goc 44.8, Jayson Megna 42.0%, and Andrew Ebbett 25.7.

Remember, these percentages were significantly higher in the first half of the season. Also, keep in mind that a Corsi For percentage below 50% is not good – not good at all. It means that most of the time, it is the opponent in control of the puck.

From the beginning, Mike Johnston and Jim Rutherford made it clear that they were going to use the regular season to restructure and recalibrate the team for playoff hockey. The prime directive for this season’s team was puck possession. For whatever reason, the players no longer seem fully committed to it.

If you are like me, you don’t have the stomach for another post season collapse by the Penguins. This team, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin has not fulfilled its potential since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. Since then, Jonathan Toews’ Chicago Blackhawks and Dustin Brown’s Los Angeles Kings have won two apiece.

You would think that sooner or later it would have become obvious to the Penguins’ players that they have to modify their approach to playing hockey. For a time this season, maybe they did, but change is hard.

Unfortunately, the Penguins’ success is working against them. Their elite talent is able to mask the inherent flaws in their game, and their winning record validates their departure from the structure prescribed by the coach.

If the Penguins don’t get back on board with Mike Johnston’s scheme, and soon, one thing is for sure —  an inferior team with a superior plan will be waiting for them once again in the playoffs.