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Sunday Pens Points: What's Ailing the Pens?

In today's edition, we focus on the root causes of the recent see-saw struggles.

Ronald Martinez

Let's do our Pens Points a little bit differently today. Instead of going around the world of hockey and collecting the news and goings-on, let's focus the attention a bit more narrowly, on what's going on with the Penguins and the whole Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing they've got going. We'll look at recaps, analyses, stats and tweets.

Let's start with the recaps and opinions about last night's game in Dallas. Here are the highlights (if you can call them that). Here is the NHL official game recap, which has a quote by Craig Adams, to which we'll circle back later: "I think it's work ethic right now. I think it's shortcuts and thinking it's going to come easy. It's a good league. It's good teams and you can't take any shortcuts."

Let's not go without giving credit where it's due, to the Dallas Stars who currently sit outside of playoff position in the West but are starting to turn it around with dominant play in their 3-game winning streak. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are blossoming into bona fide stars. I watched both their games against the Wild and the Leafs, and Lindy Ruff seems to have that team headed in the right direction. They outworked the Pens in every facet of the game, although Tanner Glass hit a lot of people because he really must want that job on the top line.

During game threads, we as fans comment to things happening in real time, dissect plays, turnovers, penalties taken, etc., and the near-unanimous refrain is that with the return of key players, you know Scuderi, Martin, Orpik, Ebbett ... oh who are we kidding, you know we're talking about Malkin and Letang, the team is suddenly not playing defense any more, as if to think "we can just outscore anyone". Is that really what's ailing this team? No. We'll look at some numbers as well, because they never lie.

A few days ago, I linked to an article by Adam Gretz on whether this phenomenon is real, i.e., do the Pens lose focus on defense when all their key players are healthy and in the lineup. Also, he questioned the way we look at defense, and should we really care about all the hits, blocked shots and the like.

I really don't care about how many hits the Pens had last night, or ever for that matter. You hit people when they have the puck. Tanner Glass registered 13 hits, but you know how many shots on goal he registered: ZERO. I don't really worry about blocked shots either. You want to block shots when you're on the PK or defending 5-on-3, otherwise give your ulnas and tibias a break (no pun intended).

Letang and Malkin aren't the problem, despite what the popular narrative may lead you to believe. Here's what's the problem:

That's the gist of things. Craig Adams is wrong, in that work ethic has much less to do with it than the fact that our bottom 6 is a black hole where our possession game goes to die. Look at really good, deep teams like the Blackhawks, and look what their bottom lines are doing possession-wise. We took 3 shots on goal when either Crosby or Malkin wasn't on the ice last night. Three. Was it just last night? Um, no.

Let's look at numbers for our bottom six. Extra Skater hasn't loaded last night's data yet, but we still have a lot to work with. Craig Adams, who has given the Pens many years of dependable play and whose work on the penalty kill is still praise-worthy, over the last 9 games has a 44-81 CF-CA at 5-on-5. Tanner Glass is 57-89 CF-CA at 5-on-5, Zach Sill (during his last 10 games prior to reassignment) was 38-107 CF-CA at 5-on-5 (no, your eyes aren't doing tricks on you; he was 1-21 in the Caps game). Even Brandon Sutter, bless his heart, is 76-117 CF-CA at 5-on-5. The night when he goes 10-10 or even 15-20 (against the Caps) is a banner night because, despite his Herculean efforts, he is trying to raise the Titanic. The loss of Dupuis was huge. Loss of Cooke and Kennedy as well, because they are legitimate NHL players who were replaced with AHL players.

You get the picture by now, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin aren't perfect, and will often get criticism for an ill-advised pinch, penalty or turnover. Would it help if they were absolutely 100% perfect? Yes, sure, but it wouldn't solve the entirety of the problem.

When the bottom 6 is going the way they are, getting completely dominated and outshot shift after shift, what are the players capable of producing offense supposed to do, exactly? Take the pitches and draw a walk, if there's no one behind them in a lineup to drive them home? A team that has 3 guys in the lineup hitting for excellent power, average, or both and 6 guys hitting .095 is a lot easier to beat than a team with 9 guys hitting anywhere from .250-.350. Right now the Pens are the former. How does this problem get fixed? One of two ways - either the players currently in the bottom 6 step it up and play better, or we need to bring in a better player or two.

That's all, folks.