With a fourth of the season behind us, it is time for a quarterly report card. See the first part of the Pens grades here.
It has been quite a year for Marc-Andre Fleury. He recently became the youngest goaltender to reach the 300-win milestone in NHL history, and has perhaps been the biggest reason for the team’s strong record. Fleury is accustomed to putting up big win totals each year, but this season has seen one of the best stretches of his career. His .924 save percentage lands him in the top ten among starting net-minders, and indicates a higher quality of play than usual for the flower (.911 career sv%). Fleury is second in wins among all goalies, and most importantly, he appears more calm and disciplined than in the past. No matter what his regular-season performance looks like, however, Penguin fans will be holding their breath once the playoffs begin, as Fleury needs to prove himself when it matters most.
New backup Thomas Greiss adds some young experience to the position, and during his spot starts, the team has seen no drop-off in performance. Greiss has posted an identical save percentage to the starter (.924), and the Pens are 2-1-1 in his four games played. The team may need to lean on the backup more down the stretch to get #29 adequate rest.
Special Teams: B+
The Pens have a ridiculous power play configuration, which is currently scoring at an unfair rate of 33.3%. While the true strength of the unit relies on the abilities of Malkin, Crosby and even Letang being versatile in their positioning, the “umbrella” formation has led to unstoppable production. Hornqvist has asserted himself as a strong presence in front of the net, a role that once belonged only to Chris Kunitz. Having two skaters that can plant themselves near the crease forces defensemen to hang tight, freeing up space for the superstar trio along the edges.
The shorthanded unit has also been outstanding, with the third best penalty kill rate (over 88%) in the league. Again, it remains to be seen how well the team replaces Dupuis, and if they decide to supplement the team with another defensive forward. In the mean time, players like Adams, Goc and Scuderi continue to carve out their role on the roster as strong shorthanded performers.
There are two reasons why the special teams did not receive an easy A. First off, the Pens lead the league in penalty minutes, and discipline has been an issue in recent years. Taking penalties can dissolve momentum and keep any team in the game, and the Penguins cannot afford to put themselves in tough spots down the stretch, when the circumstances are magnified. Secondly, the power play unit has given up a league-worst 4 shorthanded goals. Shorthanded goals are essentially hockey’s version of a pick-six. There isn’t a better way to fire up an opposing team than giving up a goal while on the man-advantage.
Pittsburgh’s record speaks for itself, and the team has implemented coach Johnston’s system with relative ease after a short incubation period. General manager Rutherford has emphasized the importance of possession in their system and roster creation, and the numbers reflect that they have been successful. During Bylsma’s last season as coach, the Pens did not crack the top half of the league in metrics that reflect possession and shot-taking (i.e., Corsi, Fenwick stats, among others). But in the early portion of this season, Pittsburgh finds themselves in the top ten for many of those indicators which likely matter to the new regime.
Johnston has described his system as one where each player is essentially a quarterback as they carry the puck through the neutral zone, making a series of reads and choosing the best option. This has led to a few bumps in the road; not every player is going to make the right read, and turnovers with this style are costly. However, the team’s roster- with smooth, puck-handling defensemen and highly skilled forwards- is clearly a good match for the new system, and players appear to be getting more comfortable as the season progresses.
As is the case for every aspect other of this team, early returns on the coaching changes won’t mean much until the spring. The franchise will once again be judged when the pressure ratchets up for a team that is sure to be an odds-on favorite to bring back Lord Stanley’s Cup.