Nov 6, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin (7) and defenseman Kris Letang (58) and center Sidney Crosby (87) celebrate Letang

Pittsburgh Penguins: Pluses and minuses from the season's first month


It’s become clear that the traditional plus-minus rating is the most rudimentary metric that exists in hockey. Newer stats like Corsi and Fenwick are more effective in determining who’s driving puck possession and who’s chasing – essentially showing which players and teams are controlling the game.

But while plus-minus is on its way out as a predictive tool, it works just fine as a gimmick to build a column around. With the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2013-14 season about a month old, here are some pluses and minuses from the opening five weeks:

Plus: Although he doesn’t have a goal in his last seven games and has “just” five assists over that span, the play of Penguins superstar center Sidney Crosby has to qualify as a huge plus. His lead in the NHL scoring race is down to one point over Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, but Crosby’s eight goals and 15 assists through 16 games have helped Pittsburgh average three goals per outing. Also, his possession numbers are among the best in the NHL, as his Corsi and Fenwick ratings each rank fourth among all players.

Minus: Unlike his fellow elite pivot, Evgeni Malkin has seen his production tail off over the past 12 months. Since his MVP season of 2011-12, when he put up 109 points in 75 games, Malkin has scored 47 points in his last 47 contests. That’s not bad by any stretch, but it’s not enough when a player is paid nearly $9 million per year to be an offensive dynamo. The long-term injury to oft-linemate James Neal is partially to blame for Malkin’s substandard form, but some of the responsibility has to fall on No. 71. His possession numbers are average, but Malkin’s looked more lively in recent games and it’s tough to judge him thoroughly without Neal alongside.

Plus: While the absence of Neal, who just returned to practice Thursday, has hampered Malkin’s line to a large degree, the unit of Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz has continued to thrive. Kunitz and Dupuis were both signed to extensions this summer, and they’ve delivered on that confidence with 16 and 11 points, respectively. Speaking of possession stats, all three members of that line are in the NHL’s top 15, which confirms how dominant they look most games. It’s not easy playing with the best player in the world, but Kunitz and Dupuis have made a cottage industry of it.

Minus: I’ve already mentioned the Neal situation a couple times, but it’s only part of the Penguins’ terrible health developments so far. The Crosby line has been the one of the few parts of the team unaffected, as Neal and Beau Bennett have curtailed the Pittsburgh attack with their lingering injuries, while defenseman Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) and backup goalie Tomas Vokoun (blood clot) figure to miss more months with long-term difficulties. The Pens have persevered admirably, but there’s no question they have missed all of the above.

Plus: The Penguins have clearly made some drastic adjustments to the way they play hockey, specifically in defending through the neutral zone. They’re still quite aggressive on the forecheck, but they almost always seem to have three players back in a variation of the old “left-wing lock.” The addition of former NHL head coach Jacques Martin to the staff has sobered the Penguins a bit, and it’s resulted in top-10 rankings in goals allowed, shots permitted and shot attempts against. Marc-Andre Fleury has been a prime beneficiary of Pittsburgh’s embrace of defending, posting a save percentage of .920 even after the Rangers scored five against him Wednesday.

Minus: While the Pens’ five-on-five defense has been superb, their penalty-killing unit has been surprisingly mediocre. Pittsburgh has dispatched 82.6 percent of opposing power plays to this point, a number that ranks 17th out of 30. Although the Penguins were below 80 percent efficacy on the PK last year, they’ve been in the top 10 of the NHL in every full season under coach Dan Bylsma. Perhaps the recent losses of PK stalwarts Matt Cooke and Jordan Staal are being felt, but special teams make a difference in such a tight league.

Even: The Penguins lead the Metropolitan Division by four points with a record of 11-5-0; however, their point total would be good for just a one-point advantage in the Atlantic, a third-place tie in the Central and fifth place in the Pacific. As Sean McIndoe of Grantland wrote earlier this week, the struggles of most Metro teams has provided a luxurious early cushion for the Penguins, but it may not be ideal for maintaining a competitive edge throughout the season. The Capitals (18 points) and Rangers (16) have come on stronger lately, so the weak Metro may not be a talking point much longer, anyway.

*****

Larry Snyder and I got together Friday morning to review the first month of hockey season on the Gospel of Hockey podcast. We discuss rules changes, surprises and other news from the NHL and beyond:

New Sports Podcasts with Matt Gajtka on BlogTalkRadio

Tags: Dan Bylsma Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby

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