Pens/Flyers, Pens/Red Wings Post-Mortems: Breaking Down Johnston's New Lines by @DXTraeger


On the heels of dual losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins and new head coach Mike Johnston find themselves assessing what has gone right- and what has gone wrong- for the team over the past 72 hours.

As I have done previously, I will break down the production (success and failures) of the various line combinations Mike Johnston has used on the ice during the past two games during 5-on-5 play.  As a reminder, I do not track power-play, penalty kill, 4-on-4 (including overtime) or empty net situations because the context of play is very different (more on that below).

Here is the subjective criteria I use to evaluate play:

Type of plays that a player (and/or his line) earn a plus for:

-successful dump & chase
-successful zone entry with some sustained pressure and/or shot attempt (note: this only applies to entering the zone as a group)
-sustained offensive zone time and/or successful forechecking pressure (shot not necessary)
-winning an offensive zone faceoff with sustained pressure (shot not necessary)
-winning a defensive zone faceoff and a successful defensive zone exit
-executing a successful defensive zone clear with a successful neutral zone transition (for instance, clearing your own zone and dumping the puck for a line change is a positive play)
-executing a set play off of a faceoff win
-scoring a goal or generating a quality scoring chance (plus only goes to players participating in the goal;  for instance, shooting, passing and screening the goalie warrants a plus, simply standing on the near boards does not)
-drawing a penalty

Here are the types of plays that a player (and his line) earned a minus for:

-failed defensive zone breakout (turnover by an Penguins forward in his own end)
-allowing the opposing team to maintain sustained pressure
-failed clearing attempts (again, limited to Penguins forwards)
-offensive players taking an unnecessary penalty (denying a quality scoring chance is sometimes a great play)
-failed dump & chase
-failed zone entry (note: this only applies to entering the zone as a group, and includes offsides calls)
-unnecessary/detrimental icing of the puck
-bad turnover (unnecessary move and/or high risk/low reward passes, subjectively assessed)
-allowing a goal or high quality scoring attempt because an offensive player failed to honor his defensive assignment

-losing a defensive zone faceoff with subsequent opponent offensive zone time/pressure

I willingly use subjective criteria because hockey is a game of context, and attempting to derive statistical relevance from events in a vacuum (without the context of the play in which the event happened) inevitably yields data that fails to represent the actual action on the ice (such as an opponent's harmless 60 foot shot negatively impacting a player's Corsi-For).

Starting with the Penguins' game against the Islanders, Mike Johnston broke up his third and fourth line combinations, rewarding the efforts of Nick Spaling (-1, +3, +1 through three games) by bumping him up to the third line between Blake Comeau and Steve Downie.  Spaling responded with his best game of the season, playing an outstanding +6 for the contest (including a stellar +5 in the third period).

Johnston kept Spaling as his third line center against the Flyers but Spaling, along with nearly the entire Penguins' roster, had significant trouble defeating the Flyers' neutral zone trap and entering the offensive zone, with Spaling's grade dropping from a +6 (Islanders) to even against Philly.

Penguins versus Flyers player grades during 5-on-5 play
Note that while Craig Adams' overall grade was the lowest (-1), he recorded only three negative plays during 5-on-5 skating compared to the fifteen negative events of Chris Kunitz.  This in no way absolves Adams: Kunitz also played significantly more minutes (about 10 minutes more of 5-on-5).  Still, Kunitz's overall "even" grade means that Kunitz struggled to make the simple, smart play more than, say, the Penguins' captain (Crosby finished at +5).

Despite the Pens' futility against Philly (or perhaps because of the Pens' struggles), Johnston was compelled to institute his first radical line changes for last night's matchup against the Detroit Red Wings.

Malkin was moved from the right wing back to his natural center, and Blake Comeau (-4, +9, +1, +7, and +3 entering the Detroit game) joined him on a wing opposite Pascal Dupuis on the second line.

The line showed instant chemistry, with Dupuis, Malkin and Comeau grading out as +8, +9, and +9 respectively.  Comeau continued to excel regardless of who he was put on the ice with, but unfortunately, his second line was the only one that posted positive scores for the contest.

Here are the 5-on-5 grades for the Penguins versus the Red Wings:

In a word: yikes.
Crosby, Kunitz and Hornqvist were soundly outplayed in this contest, with Hornqvist having his quietest night as a Penguin.

The Penguins collectively struggled in the second period, and the third period's show of low plus/minus tallies is reflective of Pittsburgh going into a lead-protecting shell (a tactic that would ultimately not succeed).

The upshot of the Penguins' past two games is that while Johnston has had success in creating combinations of players to play alongside Evgeni Malkin, the trickle down of talent and skill to the lower lines resulted in a top heavy assembly that has the Pens without the puck far more often than they'd prefer.

For instance, Comeau has played a tremendous brand of hockey, but does rewarding him with more minutes ultimately affect Pittsburgh's chance at winning because the third line now lacks sufficient punch?

At some point, Johnston will have to address the deteriorating play of Sill and Adams on the fourth line.  Until the Philadelphia game, Adams and company could wear the label of "minute eaters" and have their ice time somewhat justified by fulfilling that role.

But with both Sill and Adams leaving the Penguins' vulnerable (their limited skillsets make them a joint billing in terms of ice time), Johnston may have to finally pull the trigger and make some call-ups to shake up the balance of the roster to try and jolt the Penguins from their current stupor.




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