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How to fill the Phil Kessel-sized hole on the Penguins’ power play

New personnel and new looks are coming for Pittsburgh

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Detroit Red Wings Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Phil Kessel in the summer of 2015, they would go on to ice one of the most fearsome personnel groups in modern NHL history with the sheer amount of talent on the ice for the man advantage.

Kessel joined Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and net-front warrior Patric Hornqvist, and they created magic on the ice. For the combined time of Kessel’s stint from 2015-16 to 2018-19 the Pens’ power play was #1 in the league with a 23.0% conversion rate.

But, those days are gone, and Kessel - who primarily ran that power play off the left wall is gone. Based on power play points from 2015-current, that’s going to tell you what you already probably know; there’s a big hole now.

Luckily, Pittsburgh does have a couple of really good replacement options. The list starts with 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel who just has been the odd-man out of the usual first star-laden group up until now. Obviously at this point that probably changes.

Justin Schultz offers another option as a defenseman and right handed shot. And Alex Galchenyuk (the primary part of the Kessel return) also is a skilled player with a history of moderate power play production.

The Pens have options, so let’s lay a few out.

Flip what worked

Kessel as a RH shot ran the power play from the left wall. So why not invert the whole operation and give Crosby the Kessel role, just now from the right wall?

In this example we added Schultz to the top unit, but 90% of the NHL features four forwards, one defenseman, so this easily could be Guentzel in the mix. The biggest change from last year, besides personnel, is that Crosby slides away to direct traffic and run most of the power play. Malkin is closer to the net and going to activate. Schultz has the one-timer capability from the left to keep the defense honest. There’s a lot to like with this type of look.

I also think you could probably sub Guentzel in for Schultz and though the handedness is awkward, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. It seems possible that Guentzel could run the “Ryan Whitney play” and be that LH shot cutting into the left post and ready to conver Crosby feeds, doesn’t it?

Call Rihanna and bust out that umbrella

But, this could be a chance to break up the 1-3-1 formation that the Pens have typically operated out of. The most obvious switch if the whole philosophy is changing would be to revert to an umbrella setup.

Here we would be looking for cross-ice passes (mostly I’d assume between Letang and Malkin) with Hornqvist and Crosby ready to pounce when the incoming shots come pouring in. This idea makes sense being as there’s the skill to operate in space, and the bulldogs down low to be ready for clean up.

You could always swap or rotate 4 and 58 here, and maybe Guentzel subs in for Hornqvist at times, but that seems to be one downfall of the umbrella is wanting a RH shot where Schultz is below on that second level, and wanting a LH shot where Malkin is. That doesn’t leave any room for Guentzel, a common problem in the past.

Jake the Snake

This is kind of a new-age design. Remove Hornqvist and put Guentzel in to roam the slot. This also offers the 2D setup in hopes of keeping chances against down, and you have Letang in position to tee up one t’s from the left side.

Malkin boomin’

Geno play on the right point is nothing new, and looking above Kessel and Malkin have been the primary shooters on the power play. Let him tee ‘em up and then have the three other forwards lurking, with movement Letang could shoot in and Guentzel either cover or pull defenders towards an overload on the right side, if possible.

The Pens have a lot of options now without Phil Kessel and still a lot of talent to go around. How they decide to utilize and scheme up what will have to be a new-look power play will be one of the more interesting aspects of the upcoming season.