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10 Pens Thoughts: Early season struggles turn eyes on Johnston

The Pittsburgh Penguins are off to a tough start, and that is bringing scrutiny to the decisions that coach Mike Johnston is making. A look at the power play, Sidney Crosby, usage of Daniel Sprong and much more!

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Thoughts about the Pittsburgh Penguins and league

#1 After finally figuring out how to use the obvious alignment of a 1-3-1 on the power play (a pet peeve of mine), Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet are now finding a way to keep the Pens PP out of rhythm with personnel decisions. They've elected to play 2 split units, one with Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, the other with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist. The results have not been there.

As a result, Malkin usually finds himself on the bench while the power play ticks away.

It's obvious but apparently needs to be pointed out that a power play is a limited opportunity. The best way to score a goal is to have the best players actually on the ice, not creating 2 pretty good groups. It would be much wiser to create 1 great line.

#2 Another thing to keep an eye on is Crosby in the faceoff circle. Forget the noise and drivel about him not shooting (which is problematic, but it happens. Also, I'll trust Sidney Crosby's feel for hockey rather than Joe Sportsfan). The bigger issue with Crosby is that he keeps losing faceoffs on the power play. Last year he struggled in this regard as well.

A lost faceoff on the power play often means a zone clear, which means a regroup and attempt to rush the puck up the ice. It kills time and sends it back to square one. If Crosby continually loses power play faceoffs, the power play is not going to improve anytime soon.

#3 Mike Colligan with some interesting observations about how the Dallas Stars picked apart Mike Johnston's neutral zone systems, and also the roles that some personnel have on the team right now. As always, a very interesting and enlightening read.

#4 A lot are piling on Johnston right now (here included) but I don't think it's curtains just quite yet or that criticism automatically means he is doomed to fail. It is a long season and things are never as bad as they seem when they are bad. Still, after getting frustrated by great goalie performances in the first two games of the season, the Pens draw Carey Price and the Habs for game 3. Ouch.

At least some favorable goalie matchups are on the horizon with Ottawa and Toronto being the next two games of the week. Wouldn't be surprising to see the Pens "luck" change and start popping in some goals later in the week.

#5 Line changes seem inevitable and useful. Adding David Perron to the Malkin line seems like a good idea - Malkin has basically the same type of net driving winger right now in Sergei Plotnikov and Hornqvist. He needs someone who is good in space and can work with the puck in the offensive zone. Perron fits the bill.

Plotnikov has also generated most of his chances in the early season on the 3rd line with Nick Bonino and Beau Bennett. Probably doesn't help that line will be getting easier competition and checking than the attention Malkin draws.

#6 It's not just Pittsburgh who's struggling early in the season...Throw out the Rangers (3-0-0) and the rest of the Metropolitan Division is 1-10-2 to start the season. It's bound to change, of course, but at least the Pens aren't alone in beginning of the season struggles.

#7 Looking like 9 games and out for Daniel Sprong and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Some are up in arms that he's only playing 8-9 minutes a game, but as a 4th liner and player with no experience it's not like he's going to get or deserve much more than that. Getting a chance to preview the NHL game and life is already a huge positive and opportunity that not many in the 2015 draft class have had yet, and there's no reason to be anything but satisfied with how his progression is. It would be problematic only if they kept him in the NHL all season playing 8-9 minutes a night, but I doubt that will be the case.

#8 One not-so-veiled comment Johnston made at the end of camp was that he was disappointed with the way some of the younger forwards on the bubble just went through the motions, and didn't step up and make a push to earn a roster spot. He didn't name names but it was clear to see he was talking about players like Scott Wilson, Oskar Sundqvist and Bryan Rust who had opportunitiest but had mostly invisible training camps. Those players were so poor they lost NHL jobs to an 18-year old (the aforementioned Sprong, who was very good in camp), a minor league #grit guy (Bobby Farnham) and an uninspiring but sound veteran journeyman (Kevin Porter).

Through 2 games in the AHL, Wilson has 2 goals. (Wilkes-Barre has taken after their parent club and are starting the year slow, only scoring 3 total goals in their first 2 games). Interesting to see that Wilson at least has kicked off his year producing goals at the AHL level. Hopefully it was a wakeup call that was well-received.

#9 Something mentioned in the recap the schedule might not have done the Pens any favors. Starting on the road, against fairly blase/random western conference opponents sort of seemed like an extended exhibition schedule. They're highly paid professionals so I don't believe that is necessarily a very good excuse, but it makes sense. Also, could the late and unexpected loss of Pascal Dupuis have taken some air out of the Pens sails early? If Dupuis was there to add some speed and intensity perhaps the games play out differently.

#10 Chart below from HockeyBuzz: where a few things stood out to me


The only way to be above 50% is to be Kris Letang or partnered with Kris Letang. Rob Scuderi's high number of events against (35) looms large.

Also notice that Olli Maatta is on the low-end of time on ice. A reminder to us all that the young man is coming off 2 major shoulder surgeries and hasn't played that much hockey in the past year. It's going to take some time for him to get back in the swing of things. He's obviously a wonderful player, but it might have been smart to split him from Letang early in the year so that he gets back into game shape and can work his way up to the hefty workload of being a top pairing defenseman.