It's awfully difficult to score goals in today's NHL. It's much harder when two-thirds of your six best forwards are on the shelf.
That's the dilemma facing the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are currently without Pascal Dupuis, Beau Bennett, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz for periods of time ranging from a few days to indefinite.
The latest from the Penguins is that Hornqvist could return to practice, even game action, this week. That's some welcome news for the top-six, after the first-year Penguin was on the wrong end of a pretty devastating hit.
Even if Hornqvist does return in short order, it still figures to be a few weeks for either Bennett or Kunitz to figure back into the lineup, while Dupuis is essentially done for the year.
That leaves holes in what had already been the Penguins' thinnest part of the roster. Best case scenario, at this point, is that the group hits the postseason with all hands aboard, sans Dupuis. That assumes Bennett is even playing top-six minutes -- the coaching staff seems to favor pairing him on the third line with Brandon Sutter.
(It also assumes he'll be any kind of healthy, which, you know, black cats and broken mirrors when it comes to that dude.)
So if goals aren't going to come from the top-six as regularly as the team is used to, and we can safely assume they aren't going to come from a taxi squad bottom-six, the last place to look is the defense.
That's not lost on this group.
Via Josh Yohe at The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,
With so many forwards out of the lineup, the Penguins have been forced to rely on more offense from their defensemen. Christian Ehrhoff scored the game-winner Saturday, and the defensemen in general have thrived at picking up some offensive slack from the depleted forwards.
"We were all excited about the changes in the defensive system that allowed the defensemen to be more aggressive, to get up the ice," defenseman Paul Martin said. "As a defenseman, you like hearing that. We can still be better, but it's been good and the system is working."
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still shouldering the load, and that would be the expectation no matter what the lineup looked like. But with so many men down, it's becoming easier for opposing defenses to put the clamps on these guys.
Malkin has done his part, having scored at least one goal in six of his last ten games (eight total), and Crosby is still tied for the league points lead despite having neither of his regular wingers and some goal-scoring and shots-having totals that are way way way below his career average.
Aside from them, it's going to be goals by committee, and the defense is as good a place as any to look for offense.
So how are Ray Shero's since-graduated group of puck-movers and free-agent offensive-defensemen faring in said category this year, anyway?
About average, as the league's top-scoring teams go.
To start, the Penguins have 86 goals on the year so far, good for a 3.18 goals per game average that ranks third in the NHL, trailing only Tampa Bay and Toronto. Of those 86 goals, Penguins defensemen have accounted for 11 of them, or 13 percent of their total goal output on the year.
Looks a little low at first glance, but defensemen aren't charged with running up the score -- even the offensive-minded ones, of which the Penguins employ a few.
Amongst the NHL's top-ten offenses (by goals per game), the Penguins are about middle of the pack for goal-scoring from defensemen as a percentage of total team goal-scoring.
Here are the maths, as of this writing.
Team || Goals by Defensemen || Percent of Total Team Goals Scored by Defensemen
Tampa Bay || 12 goals || 12 percent
Toronto || 13 goals || 14 percent
Pittsburgh || 11 goals || 13 percent
Detroit || 11 goals || 12.6 percent
Calgary || 23 goals || 26 (!!!) percent
Chicago || 14 goals || 16.6 percent
NY Islanders || 13 goals || 16 percent
Vancouver || 9 goals || 10 percent
NY Rangers || 9 goals || 12 percent
Dallas || 10 goals || 13 percent
If my terrible math is even sort of correct, the Pens are right around average for what the rest of the league's best offenses are doing. The average out of that group is 14.52 percent of total goals scored by defensemen. Get rid of Calgary and their super-sustainable and not at all regression-ready 23 goals from just three defensemen, and the average is 13.25 percent.
What the Pens have accomplished so far is easily good enough. Kris Letang, the goal-scoringest of their defense corps, leads with 4 goals despite having missed five games due to injury. Robert Bortuzzo and Christian Ehrhoff have a pair apiece, while no other regular defenseman has more than a goal to his credit. Outside of Calgary, where Dennis Wideman already has ten goals and the Norris pairing of T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano has accounted for 13 more, there aren't many defensemen lighting up the box score.
Pittsburgh is going to have to scrape up new ways to score with all those top forwards hurt and with the team's sudden and chin-scratching lack of power plays of late. (No really, their average number of power plays per game has been cut in half since the middle of November.)
If that means leaning on the defense to drum up goals, whether through an increased presence on the makeshift top power play or simply taking more shots at five-on-five, so be it.
The Penguins' first season under Mike Johnston has been all about making adjustments in the face of adversity. The Big Adversity comes in April, the only time of year when any assessment of the Penguins is worth a damn.
Until then, this isn't a bad way to find out what that team might be made of.
Tuesday Slew is a feature that runs Wednesdays throughout the season. Shower James with your praise and adulation on twitter, @SlewFooters.