Penguins/Islanders Post-Mortem: Evaluating the Line Play by @DXTraeger - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Penguins/Islanders Post-Mortem: Evaluating the Line Play by @DXTraeger

Johnston Continues to Keep His Lines Stable through 4 Games
Through the first four games of the Pittsburgh Penguins' campaign, new head coach Mike Johnston has defied expectations and played his four lines both statically and consistently ala the Penguins' former bench boss, Dan Bylsma.

Bylsma's unwillingness to mix up lines and play matchups was often cited by critics as one of the reasons why the Penguins chronically underperformed in the post-season, and was a major contributing reason as to why Lemieux and Burkle canned the Team USA head coach last spring.

By and large, Johnston's contributions to the on-ice trios has focused more on the situational use of certain line combos instead of the jumbling and mishmashings of players and skillsets.

For instance, Johnston has repeatedly called the numbers of Zach Sill, Nick Spaling and Craig Adams (38, 13 and 27 for those of you scoring at home) to handle a number of offensive zone faceoffs after a TV timeout.

Common coaching convention (including basic Coris-For doctrine) dictates that you take advantage of the extended break and put your best offensive players out on the ice to try and generate immediate scoring chances off of the draw in the attacking zone.

This apparent misuse of personnel is tempered by the fact that Sill, Spaling and Adams have played responsible hockey despite their limited minutes, and have consistently graded out under my Production Success metric as positive players.

Here's how the Penguins graded out at 5-on-5 play following their tight 3-1 victory over the Islanders:

Note that the three of them graded out at a very respectable +12, with Nick Spaling recording a tremendous +5 rating in the third period to go along with his +1 and "Even" play in the first and second.

Steve Downie, he of several penalties and an ever-obvious lack of respect by NHL referees, played to an even grade (+1, -3, +2) while his linemates both posted positives of +7 (Blake Comeau) and +1 (Marcel Goc).

The Dupuis/Sutter/Malkin line continues to struggle, in large part because they seem to lack precision between the blue lines and become vulnerable to transition attacks.  I theorized after the Pens' victory over the Maple Leafs that the tendencies of Malkin to filter the play through himself at RW (instead of Sutter, the man actually playing center) leads to overload situations that if a pass or entry goes awry, the Penguins are left susceptible to a counterattack on #71's designated side of the ice.

As I explained in my first Post-Mortem, my Success Metric is based on a number of simple hockey plays that a line and/or its players either succeed or fail at making.  For whatever reasons (see: turnovers and weak neutral zone play), Dupuis/Sutter/Malkin are repeatedly finding themselves mopping up in their own end while the Pens' third and fourth lines are finding success by simple zone entries and initiating exhaustive cycles down low.

Crosby's line of Kunitz and Hornqvist is an excellent example of a group executing basic tenets (entering the attacking zone as a unit, generating quality shots and applying sustained pressure) on a repeated basis, thus accruing more positive plays than negative.

That being said, Crosby has amassed several personal minuses for lazy/unnecessary penalties and for trying to force a pass through multiple defenders while his linemates were already deep in the offensive zone, thus making the Pens vulnerable to a rush the other way.

Crosby's line constantly outgrades Malkin's because Crosby's comrades on the ice are executing cycles and zone entries better than Sutter/Dupuis are, and so Crosby and Co. are dominating in goals and chances generated.

As such, to this point, Mike Johnston hasn't had a reason to dip into the well of mixing up lines, as his line combinations are consistently playing excellent hockey and giving Pittsburgh a chance to win on a nightly basis.

Feel free to ask questions about the Success Metric or to provide criticism/observations on how you think the Metric could be improved.

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