Pittsburgh Penguins Thoughts: Time To Address The Weakest Links


The Pittsburgh Penguins once again find themselves in a downward spiral. They’ve lost five of their last six, and have only netted four total goals within those losses. They were also shutout twice during that stretch. All things considered, I’m still not panicking about this team, as the Penguins were without Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist for the last few games, as well as toggling Christian Ehrhoff in and out of the lineup due to a lingering injury. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins need to address their weakest links before the post season begins.

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I haven’t been very critical of Pittsburgh Penguins’ Head Coach Mike Johnston this season as I feel he has done a fairly good job for a first-year NHL Head Coach. However, I do wonder what his mindset is when willing to scratch or reduce the role of a player like Beau Bennett, but never take action with a player such as Brandon Sutter. Sutter is the first weak link that I want to discuss.

Brandon Sutter currently has 28 points (16g, 12a) in 71 games. Let’s have a look at his HERO chart below based on the latest information available from ownthepuck.blogspot.ca.

That’s a great visual of how poorly Sutter is performing compared to expectations. He’s well below third-line production in all possession related categories, which is an extremely important aspect of a third-line Center’s role. What’s the answer? I’ve said all along that he should be reduced to a fourth-line role.

Nick Spaling and Daniel Winnik are capable Centers that could anchor the third line and provide better shutdown capabilities. With wingers like Beau Bennett and Steve Downie that could be a productive third line without Brandon Sutter weighing it down. Ideally, my third line for the Pittsburgh Penguins would consist of Spaling centering Winnik and Bennett.

Feb 11, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Brandon Sutter (16) and center Nick Spaling (right) react after Spaling

My second weak link is Chris Kunitz. Kunitz is an interesting topic because I believe that he is a liability on the top line, but he has been serviceable with Evgeni Malkin on the second unit. The reason? Kunitz no longer provides the same impact as a net-front presence. He no longer plays the hard-nosed, hard-hitting role that made him so successful with a North-South skill-player like Crosby. He just simply doesn’t have it anymore.

However, Chris Kunitz has found himself in scoring position on multiple occasions while playing with Malkin and right wing Blake Comeau. It’s mainly due to Malkin’s offensive style and East-West game. He hasn’t been able to capitalize on those chances, but he’s in the right spot at the right time, and those chances could turn into production at some point. Kunitz currently has 39 points in 65 games, which isn’t terrible until you consider that he has 1 goal in his last 24 games. He’s a weak link that is stuck in the top-6 due to the lack of anyone to replace him. If you have to play him up there, it needs to be with Malkin. You can find more of my thoughts on Kunitz specifically here.

The last player I want to visit is Rob Scuderi. The most frustrating thing about Scuderi is the myth that he’s needed on this team to kill penalties. It’s very similar to the belief that Craig Adams is necessary due to being a PK specialist. Below is how each Penguin defenseman stacks up for CF% in all short-handed situations (via stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  Analytics tells us that Scuderi is the least effective penalty killer.

As I mentioned here, Marc-Andre Fleury has made the Penguins’ penalty kill look much better than it actually is. It was extremely evident in the recent matchup with the St. Louis Blues that Scuderi is a liability that will kill this team in the playoffs. There is too much talent on this blue line to keep deploying him night-in and night-out. I understand that Ehrhoff has been battling injuries, but when he’s healthy Scuderi should to find himself watching from the press box. He should also be in consideration for a buyout this offseason. There are cap implications with a move like that but if the impact isn’t crippling, which I don’t believe to be the case, it’s something that Jim Rutherford should strongly consider.

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A few honorable mentions are Craig Adams and Max Lapierre. I don’t need to go into much detail on these individuals, as I honestly don’t feel like they’re overused. Also, to Mike Johnston’s credit, Craig Adams was scratched for eight of ten games before Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist went out with injury. Lapierre has been a ghost while on the ice for almost all of his TOI while with Pittsburgh. I at least expected him to have a physical presence and he hasn’t done so. That being said, I think he can provide more than Adams in the playoffs, and at this point one of them will have to play. If I’m Johnston, my bottom-six looks like this going into the playoffs.

Line 3: Winnik – Spaling – Bennett

Line 4: Downie – Sutter – Lapierre

As always, thanks for reading. Join me on Twitter for more hockey talk at @Michael29Angelo.

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