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How did the Penguins’ 2020 regression candidates go?

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The regression monster comes for us all

NHL: MAR 06 Flyers at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Way back last September, we looked at some candidates for regression for the Penguins in the 2020-21 season following what happened in 2019-20. Now it’s time to circle back and see how those situations unfolded.

#1 Bryan Rust, point per game player

After scoring a total of 55 goals in the first 253 games played in the NHL (.22 goals/game) from 2015-19, Bryan Rust exploded in 2019-20, scoring 27 goals in 55 games (.49 goals/game). His points took a similar number recording 56 points in 55 games in 2019-20 (1.02 points/game), up from 114 points in those first 253 games (.45 points/game).

This is a big, huge jump into becoming an elite point producer. There are several reasons that show this is no coincidence or fluke and Rust should produce more in 2020-21 than he did from 2015-19.

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There is another red flag for Rust’s production as well. From 2015-19, he was a career 10.7% shooter. In 2019-20 that popped to a 17.9%, the 14th highest shooting percentage mark in the whole league last season. Playing with Crosby or Malkin is a reasonable bet to shoot above average, but remember that overall league average was 9.0% last year (with goalies stopping .910% across the league).

Rust shoots better than league average because he doesn’t take many of the long-range, low danger shots, but can he replicate 14th best shooting in the league again? Rust was on pace in a full 82 game season for a 40+ goal and 83 point season. That’s a really high bar to meet on a given year. He should score a lot more than the 19 goal season pace he was on (over 82 game rates) from 2016-19

It was obvious to see that Rust would step back a bit from his 2019-20 career year, and that is what happened this past season. As also predicted though, Rust still remained a key and contributing player.

Rust’s near NHL leading 17.9% shooting regressed back 14.3% — which is still a very impressive conversion rate. Also encouraging was the fact that Rust’s shot total did not fall off, 2019-20 wasn’t some fluke year where he was getting more or better shots, just a few more ended up going in the net.

Special teams factors were a big portion of Rust’s 14 point drop-off from the prior season, with eight total points (including two while short-handed) that he could not replicate in 2020-21.

#2 The follow-up to Evgeni Malkin’s bounce back

A much talked about story in 2019-20 was how Evgeni Malkin would respond to a rotten (for him) 2018-19. Malkin “only” recorded 72 points in 68 games, but had one of his worst seasons in advanced metrics, it was the first year at 5v5 where the Pens got out-scored with Malkin on the ice (2.83 GA/60 vs. only 2.72 GF/60). It was the first time since 2010-11 since this had happened.

Questions about Malkin’s aging and ability to be a premiere player existed in summer 2019, with the GM famously not commit to Malkin as an untouchable core piece of the team.

2019-20 was a great bounce-back for Malkin. He scored three more points than the previous season, in 13 less games. The Pens’ GF/60 with Malkin on the ice jumped from 2.72 up to the stratosphere of 4.02. The defensive-side, ironically, was more lax than the year before at 2.98, but Malkin out-scored any issues.

Geno’s 3.43 P/60 at 5v5 led the league (minimum 700 minutes). For an age-33 season, that’s an absolutely elite season that only a fluke injury early in the regular season cost him the opportunity to make MVP headway.

From the top of the mountain, there’s only one way to go

Unfortunately this came true, but for reasons that would have been impossible to predict or know back last fall. Malkin admittedly had a rough 2020 off-season with COVID-induced closure of training facilities he normally uses. That contributed to a slow start, and right when it looked like he was regaining his form and getting back into the best of his game, he suffered an injury in March and was never quite the same.

That said, even for a perceived “bad” year, Malkin still had a 2.28 Points/60 in 2020-21 which puts him 50th in the league (min 350 minutes). That would be a positive way to look at his season.

A negative way would be to point out that Geno had just three 5v5 goals (in 33 games) and only six primary 5v5 assists. This after scoring a whopping 16 5v5 goals (in 55 games) in 2019-20. Regression, check.

As always, Malkin is a focus and heat magnet for criticism when times are tough. And by tough, I mean the team still wins the division and comfortably makes the playoffs and has won three Stanley Cups in his tenure. (Sometimes I think the champagne problems of how some fans and media can twist into forgetting this is incredible).

With one year on his contract, many wonder what could be next, some proclaiming Malkin should only be back at a discount. That’s wrong. When you have not only a franchise icon but one of the LEAGUE’S all-time greats, the only prudent and wise course of action is to hold onto that player and that greatness for as long as a team possibly can.

The same squawking hens crying about Malkin being “over the hill” or “losing it” and worrying about over-paying Malkin for 2022-beyond for his age 36+ seasons, probably would have said the same if the situation was similar for Mario Lemieux (6G, 31P in 2001-02) for Lemieux’s age-36 season. What did Lemieux do for age-37? Just 91 points in 67 games (third highest points/game in the league).

The takeaway is that you always, always, always bet on an all-time great when you’re lucky enough to have one. Even if the Penguins overpay Evgeni Malkin by a modest sum for his twilight years, it’s an amount well-earned given how much he’s tremendously out-performed his cap hits of the last 15 years. Commit to the hall of fame legend, not the fourth defenseman or a lower line player..

#3 Looking for power play improvement

The Penguins’ finished 16th overall in the league on the power play in 2019-20. Overall, their rate (19.9%) wasn’t terrible, but it was an environment where many of their peers excelled. Pittsburgh didn’t.

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The Pittsburgh PP’s finish in the NHL for Reirden’s seasons from 2010-11 to 2013-14? 25th, 5th, 2nd, 1st. It should be noted that outlier first season was the dreadful year that Crosby and Malkin suffered season-ending injuries.

If the Pens’ power play regains form into a top-10 group in the NHL, chances bode really well that they will sail into a playoff spot. If they again continue to struggle with a middle-of-the-road advantage, buckle up.

The power play was an area of positive regression, and it happened as well! Under newly re-hired assistant coach Todd Reirden the Pittsburgh power play improved from 19.9% in 2019-20 to 23.7% in 2020-21. I have been skeptical and remain skeptical about how much of this improvement was coaching-driven, and how much was player execution (or just plain luck that when Evgeni Malkin got hurt, Jared McCann heated up into one of the league’s most dangerous power play shooters for a time).

Regardless, improvement is improvement and Reirden and the players deserve credit for that. The last line proved to be fairly prophetic, as Pittsburgh used their strong power play to score a total of 193 goals on the season (2nd in the league) and win the division. In the East, first to fourth was separated by just six points in the standings, and coincidentally or not the top two PP teams in the division (Pittsburgh and Washington) ended up as the top two teams in the regular season.

After going 3/3 on these regression targets for 2020-21, tomorrow we’ll look at some fluctuations in performance that could be on the horizon next season for 2021-22.