When I was growing up, I loved the Peter King Sports Illustrated thoughts and columns about the NFL, with a section about “things I think I think” where he would offer various commentary and punditry. With a nod to King, here’s some things I think I think about the Penguins after the first week of the 2021-22 NHL season.
The Pens are among many early season surprises.
Sure, the NHL season is in an embryonic stage at this point, with teams playing just two, three or four games so far. That hasn’t stopped for some surprising developments in the initial week.
5v5 Expected Goal +/- - October 20— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) October 20, 2021
An... unexpected group of teams at the top early on and some contenders near the bottom. Will be interesting to see how things shake out. pic.twitter.com/6x6Mx65yc4
In the east, what jumps out is the teams most assumed had little to no hopes of making an impact this season actually playing well out of the gates. In the Atlantic, Buffalo and Detroit have started a combined 5-0-1, over here in the Metropolitan New Jersey and Columbus have a total of 4-1-0. This doesn’t mean those teams will be hanging around by Thanksgiving, let alone Christmas/New Years, but the theme of the early NHL season could be surprises.
It’s also a very early reminder that in the modern NHL there really is no “sure thing”, any given game can see either team end up winning that night.
The Pens are a great representation of that as well. When it was announced in September that Sidney Crosby would be out for the start of the season, and confirmed that Evgeni Malkin’s rehab would last for months, a gloomy picture of a weak roster on paper emerged. If the Pens went 1-4 or 0-3-2 in the first handful of games, that wouldn’t have been a shock.
Yet right from the start, Pittsburgh outplayed the defending champs on opening night, hung right with a very good Florida team and blew out what was expected to be an improved Chicago squad and mucking it up with a tight Dallas team for a very impressive 2-0-2 start. “Success has many fathers” as the old saying goes, and surely the credit deserves to go in many directions from the coaching staff down to the players and goaltending, but it’s an important reminder that in the NHL: nothing comes easily and perceived strengths and weaknesses on paper aren’t always indicative of short term results.
Kasperi Kapanen was a player to watch after an electrifying training camp and preseason. Yet four games in he has no goals and only two assists, with just one at even strength. The Tuesday game was arguably as ineffective and quiet as he has been this season. He could stand to be shooting the puck more.
Kasperi Kapanen has a single 5v5 shot attempt in between and below the faceoff dots this season.— Danny Shirey (@DannyShireyPGH) October 20, 2021
Yes, it's a small sample, but the volume and the quality aren't gonna cut it if the Pens have hopes of him potting 20. pic.twitter.com/ZlqXa6OyqQ
But, on the other hand, comparing expected goals to actual results, Kapanen could be a candidate to have his results turn around with similar input. Here’s data from Natural Stat Trick that I have parsed a bit and added two columns.
Early season expected goals vs actual goals
|Player||GP||TOI||xGF||xGA||Diff||xGF%||GF||GA||GF%||actual GF - xGF|
|Player||GP||TOI||xGF||xGA||Diff||xGF%||GF||GA||GF%||actual GF - xGF|
I sorted that based on the “diff” column, or just the simple difference in expected goals for minus expected goals against, to get a sense of which players are seeing the ice tipped in which direction.
The Pens’ second line with Kapanen, Jason Zucker and Evan Rodrigues all rank among the highest forwards in this regard, with Drew O’Connor in a small sample also standing out for this metric.
Then at right, there’s a percentage difference in expected 5v5 goals for minus actual. This is showing perhaps some bad luck or some regression that could happen. Kapanen and Zucker have generated more than 2+ expected goals, yet have only been on the ice so far for one Pittsburgh goal for at 5v5.
On the flip side of the coin, everything Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen are doing right now are helping the puck end up in the net for the Pens. That’s not hard to understand, being as both are among the leading scorers on the team at the moment. Their “results” are out-pacing the “process”, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for lower-line players, and in fact a positive that they are scoring while on the ice.
Kapanen could probably stand to shoot more, but overall the Kapanen-Zucker partnership is doing a lot of good things on the ice right now.
The eventual, impending return of Sidney Crosby might provide the cascading roster depth to help Zucker-Kapanen as well. Sure, Evan Rodrigues looks great on the surface with 2G+1A in the four games, but Rodrigues isn’t a center and has gone quiet at times. The Zucker-Rodrigues-Kapanen trio has only been on ice for 1 GF in the four games (with additional points from Zucker coming on the power play, and Rodrigues scoring an empty net 5v6 goal).
Getting Crosby back not only helps the first line get stronger by reuniting the Crosby-Jake Guentzel dynamic duo, but that bolsters center depth by allowing Jeff Carter to be positioned between Zucker and Kapanen. When that happens, Zucker+Kapanen will likely generate more than 1 5v5 GF in their next four games..
Reirden said he wants players to feel "they earn their opportunity and it’s theirs until they lose it to someone else. In this situation [w/ Pettersson-Marino], that pairing will be staying together and hopefully they’ll continue to play as they have."— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) October 20, 2021
Based on simply stats and analysis from last season, it’s no surprise that the Marcus Pettersson - John Marino defensive pair has gotten off to a hot start in 2021-22. Most of the metrics point to the pair playing pretty well together.
But away from a chart or spreadsheet and on the ice, the vibe was very different. Particularly for Pettersson, whose advanced stats were decent last year, but was a player with decreasing minutes and a third pair role by the end of the season. Pettersson himself admitted he didn’t have the season he wanted to have.
The management and handling of real life players is like that, be it a confidence issue from the player, or simply a confidence issue that the coaches had in the players, both Marino and Pettersson were relegated down the roster to getting low ice time and basically just spot shifts in the playoffs until others got their wind back and could play more.
The growth to start the season in all elements: perception, confidence, results, it’s all been there for Pettersson-Marino as a pair. Earlier this week the coaches nodded to the undeniable, that the pair would remain in tact, presenting itself as too strong to split up.
Prior to Mike Matheson getting injured, Marino was working with Matheson for most of training camp. The unavoidable side effect of an injury means an opportunity for someone else.
That someone else ended up being Pettersson getting to fill in for Matheson’s spot, and anyone with an eye for advanced stats was not surprised based on history that Pettersson-Marino could end up performing very well when given the chance to do so.
Such a sequence of events is made perhaps doubly humorous that the team would find the right answer through accidental intervention. Matheson-Marino last year were very, very poor as a pair, while Pettersson-Marino needed to gain confidence but generally performed stronger. Last season alone wouldn’t have precluded a new season and the ability for Matheson-Marino to rebound, but the Pens were steered to perhaps the more fitting partner for John Marino by no choice of their own, due to Matheson being unavailable.
That kind of accidental magic is magic nonetheless, reminiscent of Mike Sullivan’s plan to create a Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel line that seemed thwarted in 2016 by a Malkin injury. Sullivan plugged Nick Bonino into Malkin’s spot, and the rest as they say, was history. Pettersson-Marino has a long way to get to a season-defining combination, but for now a positive development is a positive for the Pens, no matter how they ended up getting to it.