Penguins Update: Bottom-Six Blues – Pittsburgh Penguins – PenguinPoop Blog

Penguins Update: Bottom-Six Blues

I was watching a video last night about the Pittsburgh Steelers and their great Super Bowl teams from the ‘70s. As I noted all of the legendary players on those teams—Franco Harris, ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Jack Lambert, to name a few—it occurred to me that virtually everyone was a contributor.

I began mentally comparing them to our Cup-winning Penguins teams of the past two seasons. The same held true. There were no holes, no passengers. Everybody pulled his weight, from superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on down to fourth liners like Matt Cullen.

Wish I could say the same about this year’s bunch.

I’ll put it another way. The Pens are presently ranked 17th in the league in goal production. Yet for all of our perceived scoring issues, guess which club has the most double-figure goal scorers.

Yup, our Penguins. Tampa Bay is the only other team with six.

Projected over a full season, that means we have half-a-dozen guys on pace to score 20 or more goals. That’s impressive, especially in the salary-cap era. Heck, last year’s team had five 20 plus-goal scorers. In 2015-16, we had four guys with 20 or better.

So why are we lagging? Initially, I thought our defense might be a factor, especially with puck-mover Justin Schultz on the shelf. Some quick math revealed that isn’t the case. Our ‘d’ has contributed 15 goals thus far, only slightly off our ’16-17 pace when we accumulated 33 goals from the back line for the season.

Then I glanced at our bottom six. Bingo. Culprit found.

Output from the third and fourth lines has been downright abysmal. While there’s no way to accurately quantify the scoring from those units due to coach Mike Sullivan’s frenetic line juggling, we can at least come up with a pretty fair approximation.

I’ll use Carl Hagelin, Riley Sheahan and Bryan Rust as our standard third line. They’ve tallied nine goals. Projected over 82 games, they’ll barely surpass Rust’s solo total of 15 goals from last season, while equaling the 18 we got from the dearly departed Nick Bonino.

Nobody expects these guys to challenge for the Rocket Richard Trophy. But obviously, that’s not enough.

The fourth line is even worse. Tom Kuhnhackl, Carter Rowney and Ryan Reaves have combined for four goals. Toss in the pair potted by Greg McKegg before he was banished to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton? They’ve scored a goal every six or seven games. Atrocious.

I don’t mean to denigrate them, individually or collectively. Each brings something to the mix. Kuhnhackl and Rowney are solid defensively and on the PK. Hagelin and Rust provide speed and energy. Sheahan’s our top faceoff man and a decent all-around player. Reaves keeps opposing boogeymen at bay. But they’ve got to do more. Way more, if the Pens have serious designs on climbing back into the playoff hunt.

Whether they’re capable is anybody’s guess. Kuhnhackl and Rowney displayed a scoring touch in the minors, but have yet to prove they can light the lamp at anywhere near a consistent clip in the NHL. The allusion that Reaves was a diamond in the rough appears to be wishful thinking. He’s detracted from our speed game, to boot.

Hagelin’s protracted two-year slump truly is mystifying. He’s morphed from a dangerous player capable of making plays at a high rate of speed to one who basically chases the puck on a nightly basis. Any shred of play-making ability seems to have all but evaporated.

It’s most likely a confidence issue for the speedy Swede, but one that needs to be resolved, and soon. Ditto Sheahan, who’s still struggling to regain the solid offensive form he displayed during his first three seasons with Detroit.

Getting those two back on track would go a long way to curing our bottom-six blues. And our scoring woes.

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  1. Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
    January 1, 2018 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Hey all,

    Red Wings 4 – Penguins 1 pretty much says it all. Just when you think we can’t sink any lower, we do.

    We’re getting outclassed by some pretty ordinary hockey teams these days.


    • Jim's Gravatar Jim
      January 1, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Hi Rick.
      Very well said. Being outclassed by ordinary NHL teams. I would also add we do not fair that well against the bottom third of the league either.
      What is very clear to me is that in 2017,the second Cup winning team was no where near as good as the 2016 version. We won games in 2017 but a lot had to do with the power play, penalty kill and timely goals from the 3rd and 4th lines.
      This latest Penguin team has several flaws that have been exposed. Power play and penalty kill are not there. Third and fourth lines have real issues. Our first two lines are nothing to right home about either. Connor, Jake, Patric, Sid… Playing sub par now. Have been for a long time. Geno and Phil have been the spark plugs and both of them are known to be streaky players thru out their careers.
      On defense. Letang. He is NOT the player he once was. He is a turn over machine. We have several issues on defense. Mainly we spend to much time with the puck in our own zone. Pens teams of past where excellent at 2 passes and out of our zone we went. Getting picked off to many times. Puck ends up in our net.
      Final point. Murray and Jarry. Two bright spots on our team. However, our team was never built to withstand 3rd and 4 th shot attempts on the net ala Martin Brodeur and the Devils of past years. We are a run and gun team.. Like the Canadians of old. But now we are slower…so we can not run as fast as before, and with this line up we can not score like before. We do not have the guns over 4 lines!.
      Are we that bad ?….No Rick . I think the rest of the league is getting that much better, …and we have to as well !!
      Make the big trade now !!

      Happy New Year to All.


      • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
        January 1, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        Hey Jim,

        Very succinct analysis of our Pens progress (or regress) over the past couple of seasons.

        I agree, we won last year’s Cup as much on guile, grit and sheer will…perhaps with a dash of luck throw in…as for any dominating performance on our part.

        Heck, we could barely escape our zone for huge chunks of the Caps series, and still we won.

        Unfortunately, it’s a new season, and other teams have gotten faster, hungrier and appreciably better, while we’ve gotten slower and…by all appearances…a whole lot less motivated. A recipe for disaster.

        You’ve mentioned making a big trade on several occasions. Do you have any ideas on what they should do?

        I sure don’t … 🙁


        • Jim's Gravatar Jim
          January 1, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

          Hi Rick,
          It will be a purely academic exercise because ownership are NOT going to do what is necessary to even hope to get all the pieces we need back to win it all this year.
          Having said that ,here goes my thoughts.
          1. Do we want to three peat? Is it worth destroying the team for that elusive chance to 3 peat? The first team in the modern era to do so. That is to be part of History if we were to accomplish this feat. Remember the NY Islanders and their 4 straight wins. They have done very little since, but they have earned the right to be held in a special place in History of the NHL and even the sporting world itself. We find ourselves in that very same situation. Please remember Rick, and others, IN ORDER TO THREE PEAT WE HAD TO WIN THE FIRST TWO CUPS !! That was the real hard part.
          If you wish to three peat, Pen’s fans we will have to make some very, very tough decisions quickly. Tomorrow night we could easily be in last place in the Metro Division. Some will argue that we might not even make the first round if Sid or Geno goes down with an injury. All that being said Rick, we are in tough times.
          2. In my world, only 2 players are NOT tradeable. Everyone else is available. Period !! Crosby and Murray. Murray is that good a deal for us and he is young with 2 Cup wins to his resume. Great contract too. 3 more years and relatively cheap. Crosby is Crosby !
          3. What do we need to win ? If Malkin goes you need to replace him and another third line center as well.Plus we need to unload Letang and get something back of equal or better value. Also we need at least two good wingers . A right one for Sid and a left one to play with our new #2 Center and Phil.
          This is a tall order. But it can be done. Forgive when I say Connor, Bryan, Carl,Riley,Tommy, Ian, Carter, and Matt are just pieces. All inter- changeable. I like most of them Rick, but this is business.I want to three peat. I do not care what happens next year. I only keep Jake because of his play with Crosby in last play offs.
          4. What we need to find are teams that are under performing and are under pressure and NEED to make the playoffs now. Our players have play off experience and can help lead a team to a Cup final. A few teams come to mind Rick. Edmonton,Florida,Colorado,Toronto,Montreal. There are others. So in my example, lets take Florida. First line center Aleksander Barkov, second line Center man Nick Bjugstad and Star defense man Aaron Ekblad for Malkin and Letang. The Panthers have a serious need to make the play offs and have an abundance of young forwards. Get them to throw in a first round draft pick and you have a deal. Maybe add Sheary and another piece and trade for one of their many wingers.
          Or how about Edmonton. Can not figure them out at all this year. I guess they need leadership. How about Center Leon Draisaitl and D man Oscar Klefbom and rookie right winger Jesse Puljujarvi for Malkin and Letang ? Does not help my third line center issue. Or from Colorado, star Center man Nate MacKinnon, Left winger Gabriel Landeskog and second year right winger/center man Mikko Rantanen for Malkin, Letang, and Sheary ? I would use Rantanen as my third line center. I would move Landeskog to play with Sid, and move Jake to second line with Nate, and Phil. Move Riley to 4th line and Carter to his left wing. Obviously i would try to find a rental d man come trade dead line to fill in for Letang.
          Just some crazy ideas Rick because this will never happen !!
          Wait and see. JR will trade Cole for an older, washed up center man thinking that will be enough to win it all . Not going to happen Rick. We need several sets of new legs…yesterday.
          But the real question comes if we indeed miss the playoffs come this summer our teams talent level will be at rock bottom for trade value. They need to trade now !

          Fun to be an arm chair GM..

          • the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
            January 1, 2018 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            Hey Jim,

            Hope you don’t mind my 2 cents worth.

            For me no one is actually untradable. Given the right price, I would trade anyone and I would actually try and trade them while their stock was still fairly high. However, I would have to say the price to pry not just Crosby and Murray but even Malkin and Kessel from me right night now would probably be way to high for anyone to want to try and get them. I know there are those out there that like to deride both Malkin and Kessel, but look what they have done over the last 2 years, particularly in the play-offs.

            As you duly noted that if you trade Malkin, you would then need both a 2nd and a 3rd line center and let’s be honest, right now Crosby is Crosby, but Malkin has been the Penguins best Center this year. Furthermore, the chances of a dark horse coming out in this draft to even come close to Malkin’s talent level over the next 4 or 5 years is rather low. The best player is a D man.

            As for Kessel, the Penguins do still have some depth at RW but with Hornqvist UFA, I wouldn’t risk going into next season with only Sprong, Rust, and possibly Aston-Reese.

            If it is me and I still feel a 3-peat is viable, the only assets that may net me something, that I would be willing to give up would be Letang, Cole, Sheary, Reaves, Hunwick and/or Hangelin and Kuhnhackl off of the current NHL roster. Everyone else on the roster would be needed for the Cup run. Chances are none of them at least by themselves would net me what want to make a run for the Cup unless I could pull off a proportional theft of the Scuderi – Daley trade with Letang. Or if I could accumulate enough draft picks to and supplement them with one or two of my own.

            If I feel that a 3-peat is no longer a viable, then my first thoughts are these, trade the UFAs. Cole as much as I like him is traded and as much as I hate to say this, same thing with Hornqvist. However, speaking just for me and not necessarily the team, I would then try and resign them during the off-season, sort of like what the Pens did with Recchi for a couple of seasons. I would look to build back up my talent pool.

            With each win, Vegas looks like a very solid trade partner, with all the draft picks they have they may decide that they have enough to not only build a solid team but buy a serious Cup run in their first year and may bite on Letang, particularly with an idea of reuniting hum with Fleury.

            As for who I would look to get in return I think I have pretty much made the names of players I would target for a 3-peat already.

            • Jim's Gravatar Jim
              January 1, 2018 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

              Great job Coach.
              I left you a similar one on yours just now..:)

  2. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    December 31, 2017 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Hi Rick
    Happy New Year to you.
    I read your analysis of our team and I too feel our 3rd and 4 th lines are seriously
    deficient in comparisons to our 2016 and even our 2017 Cup winning teams. I remember when we acquired Hagelin and his former team wanted to trade him before his new contract fully came into effect.For this very reason. He could NOT score goals on a regular basis at the NHL level and they just gave him a large contract. So this is no surprise to anyone except a Pens fan. With regards to Rowney and Tommy you said it. They are AHL talent at best playing with 5 or 6 world class players that sometimes makes them look good.Others too.
    So I do not see this great revival you speak of. We need better horses to win the race. I mean real trades and not just tweaks.

    My 2 cents Rick.

    Let’s Go Pens

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      December 31, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Hey Jim,

      Always good to hear from you, my friend. Hope you aren’t in a New Year’s deep-freeze like us. Brrrrr.

      I don’t see a great revival, either. Production-wise, the Pens have morphed into a two-line team. We’re not going anywhere as long as that’s the case.

      I had hopes that Rowney and Tom K. would score enough (5-7 goals each) to anchor a decent fourth line. I still think they might produce if they had, say, a Matt Cullen centering for them. But put ’em on a line with Reaves, and collectively they have about as much flow as quick-drying cement.

      A mild pushback on Hagelin. He was a solid, if unspectacular scorer for the Rangers (back-to-back 17 goal seasons, two others in double figures). When he first came here in ’15-16 he did quite well…10 goals and 27 points in 37 games, another six goals and 16 points in the postseason. So he has a decent track record.

      I know he’s always been streaky, prone to hot spells and cold snaps. Unfortunately, the hot spells have dried up … 🙁

      I have no idea at this stage how to revive him. Maybe you give Hags some time on the power play. Of course, that means you have to pull somebody off to make room.

      We all knew Sheahan was a bit of a project. I’m not unhappy with his overall game. But we obviously need more production from him.

      In terms of potential in-house fixes, I’m guessing center Teddy Blueger will be given an audition in the not-too-distant future. Or perhaps Thomas DiPauli, who can play wing or center. Obviously, it remains to be seen whether either can do the job at this level.

      I don’t hold out much hope for improving through trades. You’ve got to give up something to get something. And right now, we don’t have much in the way of spare talent to offer.

      If Daniel Sprong works out, perhaps we can parlay Conor Sheary into a solid bottom-six center. And maybe you can move Hagelin for, say, Mikkel Boedker, a good player who’s having an equally miserable season for San Jose. But that’s about all I see happening.


    • the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
      December 31, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Hey Jim and Rick,

      From what I read, Sullie is looking to play Sprong on 3rd line with Sheahan to try and get more production from that line.

      I get it but I don’t agree with it. (Not that Sullie cares what I agree with). I think you are in deep do do when you put a rookie on the third line to try and amp up scoring from the third line.

      Since Crosby himself is a slump; yes he is on pace for a 30 goal season but he is way off his standard for the last couple of years despite scoring around the league being up, so I would be playing Sprong with him.

      Of course I wouldn’t have sent Simon down either, I would have kept him up and sent Wilson down. For me I would be looking at using Guentzel, Simon, and probably Sheary (until Rust comes back or I traded him) in the top 3 LW roles with Kessel, Sprong, and Hornqvist in my top 3 RW roles. After Crosby and Malkin, we are really weak at Center. Until the team gets a legit 3rd line C, we don’t really have a choice.

      • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
        December 31, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        Hey Other Rick,

        I’m a little (okay, a lot) surprised that Sullivan plans to use Sprong on the third line.

        Maybe he thinks it’ll shield the kid a little until he gets his feet wet, while ensuring some favorable matchups away from the opposition’s top defensive units, which he’d surely face skating alongside Crosby. But my sense is Sprong’s used to the spotlight and might even crave it.

        It’s kinda’ like purchasing a high-performance sports car but only driving it during rush-hour gridlock. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?

        Oh well. Given how frequently Sully juggles his lines, Sprong’s initial assignment may last all of two shifts.


        • the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
          December 31, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          Agreed, Sullie changes line combos faster than most people change their socks.

          I would also be a lot okay with Sprong playing 3rd line if his center was Trottier like Jagr had a his 3rd line Center when he came up. Trottier could teach Jagr how to play responsibly while getting him the puck in scoring situations, all the while getting the softer match-ups that you mention. However, I don’t share others optimism that Sheahan can do that. I fear Sprong will have to generate his own chances. A lot of pressure on a kid who wasn’t even a first round pick.

  3. the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
    December 31, 2017 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Hey Rick,

    Great stuff! I like the analogy to the Emperor Chaz era Steelers.

    I usually look at the stats slightly differently. When I looked at the teams gross goals this morning they were 18th but Chicago and Columbus who were tied just ahead of them only had 1 more goal than our Penguins, so I do see what you are saying. However, I look at the teams G/60min to even out games played, in this case the fall tied for 19th with Columbus and Minnesota with Pittsburgh actually being listed last among those teams at 21 (I am not sure how they differentiate and put Pittsburgh last). That is why when I talk about their scoring I talk about them dangerously close to the bottom third. The differences though are minuscule so relatively meaningless.

    I t is hard to argue with you when you point out the bottom 6 as the culprit for the Penguins offensive woes, their production is abysmal. Offensively, they have been pretty much non-existent, and since the name of the game is out-scoring your opponent, well, they have been rather useless.

    Well, all but Rust, even though Rust hasn’t found the bak of the net himself, he has added a fair amount of helpers. He actually has been involved in more goals than Sheary and given a choice between the 2 I would take Rust every time. Sheary is a very streaky goal scoring, getting his in clumps and then disappearing for weeks on end. Yes he does dart about the rink like a dragon fly over a still pond, but gets shewed off of the puck as easily as chasing the same said bugs out of your way. For all of his sound and fury, like a gnat, he signifies very little.

    Looking at another stat, one that I mentioned yesterday, our Penguins have dropped all the way down to 27th in the league in Shoot%, finding the back of the net only 8% of the time and that may be the biggest problem. This ridiculously low % may be attributed to the fact that last year the Penguins average shot length was 5 feet shorter (last year the shot from 30.68 feet from 35.49). This years team is not fighting its way into the dirty areas, the high % scoring areas, they are just tossing the puck at the net from left field and hoping for the best.

    But to get back to your Steeler analogy, as players like Dwight White and JT Thomas started moving out of their prime, unfortunately, Coach Noll was slow to move on. Like JR and Sullie, he kept seeing the players that won him 4 Superbowls when he looked at them and analyzed their skill set, rather than looking at the player they were now. After playing as much hockey as these guys have played over the course of the last 2-years, some of them playing in World Cup hockey and in Hagelin’s case making deep runs in more than just the last 2-years, these players may still have a lot left in them, compared to Dwight White and JT Thomas, but when considered collectively, they have to be running on empty. It is sheer folly to think that we can expect the team to 3-peat, to play another 20 odd games of post-season play again this year and come out on top. Kids brought up from WBS and trades to get fresh legs and augment the core players has to be exchanged for some of the other players, including possibly 1 or 2 of the top 10 guys (6 F/4 D).

    No the kid in me hates to think in terms of trading out these guys. In a fantasy world I would love to see them all play at the top of their games until they retire and retire in a Penguin uniform. Unfortunately we live and they play hockey in the real world, a dynamic, changing world and hard decisions have to be made if a team wants to 3-peat (or if it is too late for that, position itself to return for another 1 or 2 Cups next year).


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