Depth wins championships.
It is one of the most overused and overwritten tropes in all of sports, however when it comes to the NHL, it could not be more true.
And it’s something that’s been giving the Pittsburgh Penguins problems for quite some time, most notably in the playoffs.
I’ve said it before, but with the exception of Brandon Sutter, Pittsburgh’s lack of legitimate threats that can chip in offensively when the Crosby and Malkin lines get shut down is, and will continue to remain, the Achilles heel of this team. If they do not do something to rectify the situation in the next few months, another collapse much like the one that happened against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals last season could become a recurring nightmare for Penguins fans.
But just how underwhelming have Pittsburgh’s depth forwards been? Let’s take a look.
I’ll start off with the obvious: goals.
The Penguins lead one of the most potent offenses in the NHL, having scored a total of 103 even- strength goals to date, however when you look at the breakdown of how those goals come, it’s a little alarming. As they sit right now, the Penguins top line of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and (formerly) Pascal Dupuis, as well as it’s second line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Jussi Jokinen have accounted for 57 of Pittsburgh’s 103 total even-strength goals, according to extraskater.com.
When you add in the 13 ES goals scored by defenseman, that brings the grand total to 70, a whopping 69% of total team ES goals. This also means that Pittsburgh’s bottom six have accounted for only 33 even strength goals in 45 games this year.
When you expand the data to include all goals, those number only inflate further.
Pittsburgh’s power play is lethal, and their 143 total goals is near the top of the league as well, however of these 143, 94 have come from their top six. When you add in total goals by defenseman, the sum comes to 115, a whopping 80.4% of total team goals, leaving the bottom six with a meager 19.6 percent of total offense.
(Also worth noting, Pittsburgh’s even-strength goal percentage of 72% ranks in the bottom third of the league, at 23rd overall.)
Now, some of you may think that this is not that big of a deal. After all, the top-six should be contributing the most offense, that’s why they’re the top six after all, right? And you’d be correct, to an extent. If a bottom six can’t put the puck in the net often but is effective at shutting down other teams top lines, they still have value.
However, many of the Penguins bottom-six forwards can not do this very well either, apparently.
The following is a chart depicting the Corsi ratings of every forward who has played in at lead 10 games for the Penguins this season. As you can see, the drop off is pretty steep once you get to guys who have played in the bottom six.
For those who don’t know, Corsi is an advanced-stats measurement developed by Sabers goaltending coach Jim Corsi. It takes into account all shots directed at the oppositions net while a particular player is on the ice (shots, saves, blocked shots, deflections, and shots that miss the net completely) and subtracts them from all shots directed at your own net in that same time. It is a useful measurement of puck possession during a specific shift for that player.
For example, a Corsi of 5 means that, on average, that team takes five more shots than it gives up when that specific player is on the ice, per 60 minutes of ice time.
Likewise, a Corsi of -5 means that it gives up five more shots than it takes with that player on the ice.
With that in mind, a quick glance at the even-stregth Corsi for the Penguins bottom six (in blue) reveals that they are, in essence, not very good at shutting other teams down, even though many of them face some of the weakest lines.
Tanner Glass at -17.74. Craig Adams and -9.3. Even Brandon Sutter, who is a perhaps the lone legitimate threat not in the top six, is a -11.99. From top to bottom, many of the Penguins depth forwards are possession black holes.
In their defense, injuries and line changes have prevented the Penguin’s depth from fixing any real identity or chemistry together, leaving them as little more than a patchwork of waiver-wire pickups and AHL recalls. These facts make Pittsburgh’s need for legitimate NHL forwards all the more paramount.
Right now, the Penguins are going through the incredibly bad Eastern Conference like hot knife through butter, with a seven point lead over the Bruins for first in the East, as well as an unbelievable fifteen point lead over Philadelphia for first in the Metro-terrible Division. As a result, many to see no rush in jumbling up the lines even more with trade acquisitions.
However, given that the NHL trade deadline is March 5th, only one week after the Olympic break ends, any moves the Pens make to improve their depth needs be done sooner rather than later.