The Pittsburgh Penguins certainly haven’t been a team short on intrigue this season. Coming into the year as the betting favourite to defend their title in pursuit of a three-peat, the results have been a mixed bag so far.
What’s made them a tricky bunch to evaluate this season are the unique extenuating circumstances. To start the campaign, they looked every bit like a team that had just played a ton of hockey games deep into each of the past two summers. Most of their early struggles were shrugged off on account of that – including a trio of October thrashings at the hands of the Blackhawks, Lightning, and Jets, in which they lost by a combined 24-3 margin.
It was easy for us to overlook some of the early-season red flags because of their combination of recent success and all the star talent on the roster. We expected this team to eventually flip the switch when the games began to matter more.
They’ve slowly started to reward that faith and have now won eight of their past 10 games. That’s allowed them to vault into a playoff spot for the time being, though their grip on it is still tenuous with six teams behind them all within five points.
There’s sure to be plenty of jockeying for position in the crowded Metropolitan Division in the days and weeks to come, but the fact Pittsburgh is still in the discussion is remarkable, considering all the difficulties they’ve endured in what we typically believe to be the most important game state.
At five-on-five this season, the Penguins have been trapped inside their own personal house of horrors. They’ve had the fifth-most anemic offence and no team has a lower shooting percentage.
On the other end of the ice, they’ve been the fifth-most porous defence, largely due to the fact that no team has a lower save percentage than Pittsburgh’s .908.
Put those two together, and the end result is a team that’s given up 27 more goals against at five-on-five than it has scored. As a frame of reference, only the Arizona Coyotes (-38) and Buffalo Sabres (-31) have been worse, and they’re unequivocally the two worst teams in the league.
So with that in mind, how exactly have the Penguins managed to stay afloat and survive despite taking on so much water?
Part of the answer is their power play which, unlike their aforementioned performance at even strength, has been running red hot all year. Not only have they scored more than anyone else on the power play, but it actually stacks right up there with the best units we’ve seen dating back to 2006:
|Team||Season||Power Play Goals Per Hour|
When the best players the NHL has to offer convened in Tampa Bay last weekend for the league’s annual all-star festivities, there was one name that was most conspicuously missing from the bunch.
That was Phil Kessel, who somehow wasn’t one of the three members of the Penguins in attendance, despite there being a well-founded argument that he’s been their most important (if not outright best) player this season.
But there’s actually a fairly reasonable case to be made for it through the first 50-plus games. Here’s the thinking behind it: the only reason the Penguins are still alive in the playoff picture is because of their power play, and their most effective weapon in that particular facet of the game has been Kessel.
Kessel is currently third in league scoring behind only Nikita Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon, on pace for 33 goals and 93 points over the course of a full season. Of his 59 points thus far, more than half have come on the power play. To put that kind of split into perspective, here are the players who have had the highest chunk of their production come on the man advantage (minimum of 10 points on the year):
|Player||Total Points||Power Play Points||% PP Production|
It’s interesting to note that Kyle Palmieri and Kyle Turris are the only other forwards to appear on the list. It’s generally difficult for defencemen to rack up counting stats in bunches at five-on-five because of the typical game flow and how points are distributed.
If Kessel can keep this up, he is trending towards some awfully illustrious company all-time. He’s currently on pace for 52 power play points, which is rather insane considering that the 50-point plateau has only been reached 11 times over the past two decades. Taking it one step further, seven of those 11 individual performances conveniently came in the artificially inflated year following the 2004-05 lockout, when the league went crazy and gave out penalties for looking at people the wrong way.
|Player||Season||Power Play Points|
A big part of the battle in accumulating points is always going to be about opportunity. Kessel has certainly been blessed with that, having played just over 200 total minutes with the Penguins up a man this season. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are the only others to top that mark, and only Ovechkin has had a higher percentage of his total ice time (21.9 per cent of his minutes to Kessel’s 21.5 per cent) come on the power play.
While that’s impossible to dispute, it’s likewise impossible to argue that Kessel hasn’t deserved to gobble up the kind of cushy usage he’s received. Inhabiting the left circle with his lethal snap shot, he’s seemingly been involved in the action whenever the Penguins have struck on the man advantage. At a per-minute clip, only Josh Bailey has produced points more efficiently, and only Blake Wheeler has generated primary power play points more often than Kessel.
At this point, it’ll be pretty difficult for Kessel to ever get the love his play warrants. Part of that is because of his teammates, who are bigger names that are held in higher regard and will always soak up the majority of the attention. Another part of that is because some people can’t seem to take him seriously as a top athlete because of the way he looks, which has led to some of the unfair off-ice criticism he’s drawn throughout his career.
But don’t let any of that fool you. On a team flush with stars, Phil Kessel has shone the brightest this season. The only thing heavy about him these days is the lifting he’s been doing for the Penguins.