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Getting the Penguins Powerplay Back on Track

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A look into why the PIT powerplay is struggling and what the team can do to improve it.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the year, the Penguins' powerplay was on fire. Yet while they scored plenty of goals on the man advantage, I noted that this success seemed unsustainable. The Penguins were scoring on an insane number of shots but they weren't peppering the net with shot attempts at an above average rate. Recent injuries have only accelerated the inevitable regression, as the Penguins PP% of 24.3% is now 4th in the league (as of Monday morning).

What the Penguins can control, however, are their shot rates. And they need to get those up. As of Monday, the Penguins sat 13th in the league in powerplay CF/60, generating just above 101 shot attempts per 60 minutes of powerplay time. We can see how the team's PP shooting percentage has come down throughout the season and how the team hasn't been able to make up that ground in shot attempts. Here is a 5-game moving average of their on-ice powerplay shooting percentage this year.

The downward slope throughout the season is noticeable. Here is the same graph but this time with powerplay CF/60 for this year

This is more chaotic, but there are still large troughs where the Penguins weren't getting enough pucks on net. Indeed, for about the entire 30 days between October 15 and November 15 (before injuries hit), they were trending in the wrong direction in terms of shot attempts. The team's recent spikes have yet to prove sustainable.

How to fix this? One way is to get healthy, but that is beyond everyone's control. While the team waits to regain full health, I think there are three other things they can do to improve their powerplay numbers. The first is basic and superficial. The others are more involved.

First, the Penguins need more emphasis on powerplay shot attempts. In the beginning of the year, it was easy to get glorious chances through deft passing against the terrible PK units of Dallas, Buffalo, and Toronto. Against the better teams, the Penguins need to focus less on cross-ice passes and shot-passes from the point, and more on simply getting pucks to the crease and allowing your net-front presence to clean up rebounds.

Second, the Penguins need to get more shots from the scoring chance area. We can use the hextally graphs over at War on Ice to see where powerplay shots are coming from. The redder the hexagon, the more shots from that particular area (measured against league average). An easy way to remembers this is "the redder the better." Here is the powerplay hextally for the prior three years (2011-14).

You can see that the Penguins dominated the home-plate area of the ice while on the powerplay. Here is that same graph for this year.

See the difference? The Penguins are doing slightly better from immediately in front of the net but are not generating anything above average from the rest of the scoring chance area. It's important to note that the plot from this year will be less full than the graph from the previous three years because the older plot has more data in it. However, the color of the hexagons is still important. The ones in the middle of the ice from this year are grey and blue, which means the Penguins are no better than average at getting shots from the slot.

To see that this isn't just a function of having less data for this season, here is the PP hextally for San Jose this year.

All that red in the middle of the ice is what the Penguins should aim for.

To get a better spread of shot attempts, the Penguins should consider putting Kunitz and Hornqvist on separate powerplay units. Both excel near the crease, but neither gets a lot of shots from the middle area of the ice. Since Hornqvist is younger and a little better, I'd keep him on the top powerplay unit. To replace Kunitz, I would use either Beau Bennett or Steve Downie. Each of these guys can shoot the puck fairly well from the slot, and both fit the mold of a mid-range shooter better (in my opinion) than either Kunitz or Hornqvist.

Downie and Bennett don't have a lot of powerplay time under their belt, so their individual powerplay hextally graphs don't look that promising. Nevertheless, I think this is worth a shot because the Penguins aren't getting enough threatening shots from outside the goal mouth.

Third, Johnston should consider giving less powerplay time to the second unit. Because Crosby plays on the top unit (and played in nearly every game this year and last year), we can use his PP ice time to figure out how much time the top PP unit gets. According to Hockey Analysis, Crosby played about 77% of the total 5v4 ice time for the Penguins last year. This year, he sees only about 58% of the team's powerplay time. With your best players getting less time on the powerplay, you're bound to have a less effective unit in terms of shot generation. Here's what I mean:

2014-15 PP CF/60
Crosby 109.8
Kunitz 109.7
Malkin 108.5
Hornqvist 105.7
Downie 100
Goc 97.4
Dupuis 95.3
Comeau 92.4
Sutter 88.8

The staples of the second unit--Sutter, Comeau, Downie--aren't generating shot attempts nearly as well as the top guys. It makes sense in theory for Johnston to want his second unit to play more so that Crosby and Malkin get less tired as the game wears on. But that needs to be balanced against the fact that the second unit's increased ice time is a big reason for the precipitous drop in powerplay shot attempts.

If Johnston can commit to giving Malkin and Crosby more man-advantage time--and relying a little heavier on his bottom six at even strength--he might get the best of both worlds. Regardless, if the Penguins' powerplay does not see an uptick in shots as the season wears on, the impetus for change will only become more pronounced.