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The Pens’ power play: an extra right hand shot, or an extra forward?

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The Pens have a theory question to answer in replacing Phil Kessel. Will they do it with a forward, or a right handed shot?

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins power play after Phil Kessel continues to be a topic that grabs my attention. The Pens have had talent in the B.P era (Before Phil) and they certainly have talent now after Kessel has departed.

But Kessel was the quarterback of the Pens’ power play, leading Pittsburgh in power play assists (89) and points (125) in his stint in Pittsburgh from 2015-19.

Sorting the NHL’s team stats by best power play over the same span shows the same tam at the top of the heap:

Replacing Kessel on the power play is going to be key. The Pens have long leaned and relied on their man-advantage to shift the balance of games. When it goes cold, things go off the rails in a hurry (see 1-for-11 performance the embarrassing week known as the team’s 2019 playoff showing).

It’s only been recently that the team has really dug into special teams work in practice, and the assortment of personnel deployed has been eye-raising.

From that article, detailing Justin Schultz’s rise:

“Obviously his real strength is his offensive instincts,” Mike Sullivan said. “So when we have him in our lineup, it just gives us one more guy that we can utilize in those types of situations. We’ve got (Letang) obviously that’s a dynamic offensive player. But to have two guys like we have in (Letang) and Justin, I think just makes us that much more difficult to play against.”

...

“We were used to the same unit for so long there with the same guys, it’s different,” says Schultz. “But both of us spend time on the second unit too and you ride two (defensemen) on that unit. It’s not that much of an adjustment.”

The left wall would appear to be a coveted spot based on the way Schultz describes it.

“The two (defensemen) look, I know me and (Letang) like it because either one of us are interchangeable,” Schultz said. “We just play either position. So whether you’re the flanker or the middle, it’s pretty easy for both us to switch where ever we end up. It’s pretty fun being that flanker bombing away. So we like it.”

Here’s a look at Letang and Schultz on the 5v4 power play from the 2016-17 season to present, just to get a reset and idea of how the team and individuals have fared while out there:

Letang and Schultz 5v4 team performances 2016-2019

Player Position GP TOI TOI/GP CF/60 Difference SF/60 Difference GF/60 Difference xGF/60 SCF/60 Difference SCF% HDCF/60 Difference HDGF/60 Difference On-Ice SH%
Player Position GP TOI TOI/GP CF/60 Difference SF/60 Difference GF/60 Difference xGF/60 SCF/60 Difference SCF% HDCF/60 Difference HDGF/60 Difference On-Ice SH%
Kris Letang D 185 585.12 3.16 97.21 4.57 56.3 2.88 8.82 -0.11 7.46 57.12 0.63 82.03 25.94 3.55 5.02 0.34 15.66
Justin Schultz D 170 409.98 2.41 92.64 -4.57 53.42 -2.88 8.93 0.11 7.07 56.49 -0.63 88.13 22.39 -3.55 4.68 -0.34 16.71

And individually:

Letang, Schultz individual stats 5v4 power play, 2016-19

Player Position GP TOI TOI/GP Goals/60 Difference Total Assists/60 First Assists/60 Total Points/60 Difference IPP Shots/60 SH% ixG/60 iCF/60 iSCF/60 iHDCF/60 Rebounds Created/60 Takeaways/60 Hits/60 Hits Taken/60
Player Position GP TOI TOI/GP Goals/60 Difference Total Assists/60 First Assists/60 Total Points/60 Difference IPP Shots/60 SH% ixG/60 iCF/60 iSCF/60 iHDCF/60 Rebounds Created/60 Takeaways/60 Hits/60 Hits Taken/60
Kris Letang D 185 585.12 3.16 0.72 0.28 4.2 2.36 4.92 0.38 55.81 8.1 8.86 0.62 18.05 5.23 0.62 1.85 1.13 1.33 0.92
Justin Schultz D 170 409.98 2.41 0.44 -0.28 4.1 2.05 4.54 -0.38 50.82 7.9 5.56 0.68 16.39 5.27 0.44 0.59 0.73 0.44 1.61

(all stats via Natural Stat Trick)

Since this isn’t really a “Schultz vs. Letang, two players for one spot” type of thing, since most the practices have been using three forwards (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin constants, of course — then a mix of Jake Guentzel, Alex Galchenyuk and Patric Hornqvist as the third) and BOTH Schultz and Letang on the ice as two defensemen.

It’s also a nice reminder for the incorrect “harf harf Letang can’t hit the net” crowd to spell it out that Letang shoots, scores and creates more rebounds with his shots than just about any defenseman in the entire league, but that’s a fun digression for another time.

Shifting personnel to two defenders would be flying in the face of the way the league is moving. As Tyler Dellow wrote for The Athletic in 2018:

It’s always interesting watching how the game evolves and from 2007-08 through 2013-14, usage of a 4F1D only increased by about seven percentage points, from 32.4 per cent to 39.3 per cent. Since then, it’s really spiked, going to 44.1 per cent, 51.7 per cent, 57.2 per cent and, in 2017-18, 67.0 per cent.

It’s fascinating to see that the increase in time spent in a 4F1D isn’t resulting in decreased results from a 4F1D. One objection that might plausibly have been raised back in the day was that it would work if you had the personnel and that the reason it looked so good is that some teams had the personnel to do it while others didn’t. It’s remarkable that we’ve more than doubled the amount of time spent in a 4F1D without any decline in results at all.

Results have been good - Dellow’s data showed 4F1D was approaching generating 8 Goals For/60, compared to 3F2D teams that only generated a little north of 5 GF/60. And, as we see above, since Pittsburgh has a sensational power play, Schultz and Letang are in the 8.8-8.9 GF/60 range over the past few seasons, beating out the average options.

Which this hockey-graphs.com article from 2015 also drops the stats on you of the pretty logical advantages of having an extra forward on the ice — a team’s fourth best forward is better at scoring goals than the team’s second best offensive defenseman is, generally speaking.

So it will be interesting to see how the Pens go with this, in the face of the league trend if they do end up using both Schultz and Letang on their top power play.

One reason to try this out is certainly handedness. Schultz has been more or less in the same spot as Phil Kessel on the left side of the attacking zone. Schultz and Kessel are both right handed players. The forwards who would fill this role (Guentzel or Galchenyuk) are left handed. Hornqvist is right handed, but he would rotate in towards the net-front area, which kicks Crosby out into space, and Crosby is also left handed.

So in theory, beyond just the “4F1D or 3F2D” battle, what seems more important to the Pens right now is keeping a right shot on the left side.

Ultimately though, they may need to cycle through personnel and in that case drop Schultz from the top power play group in favor of an extra forward like Guentzel or Hornqvist in order to generate more goals and activity near the net.

Watching if they want to try and make it work with an extra RH shot or extra forward out there will be the first interesting test they’ll have to face when it comes to trying to keep a No. 1 power play group ticking along without Phil Kessel.