During the first part of the 2021-22 season (and for most of the 2020-21 season) one of the Pittsburgh Penguins greatest strengths was the scoring depth throughout its lineup. It was among the best in the league, with the Penguins consistently averaging more than 2.5 goals per 60 minutes when neither Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin was on the ice, and significantly outscoring their opponents in those situations.
It was the type of balanced lineup that produced back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and was one of the biggest reasons they should be looked at as a significant Stanley Cup contender this season.
They still should be viewed as such, especially as they get Jason Zucker and Mike Matheson back in the lineup, and assuming they can find a way to make some sort of an addition before the trade deadline later this month.
There has been a bit of a drop in the production of their depth forwards over the past month or so. It has been obvious, and been pointed out several times during that stretch.
Evan Rodrigues and Kasperi Kapanen’s struggles offensively have been well documented, but Jeff Carter, Brock McGinn, Zach Aston-Reese, and Danton Heinen have also gone cold as well.
As a group, those six forwards have combined for just six goals since the start of February, a stretch of 12 regular season games. That is not ideal.
Aston-Reese’s struggles should not come as much of a surprise, as he has just one goal for the entire season. Love his defensive play, but he is approaching Craig Adams territory offensively here. Heinen and Kapanen are getting looks on Malkin’s wing, so they do not really qualify as “depth” players at the moment, while Heinen has had some moments over the past couple of weeks.
Carter and Rodrigues are the two that stand out, because they are the ones that are going to be relied on to carry the depth scoring. Since Carter’s acquisition from the Los Angeles Kings at the deadline a year ago, they have. Until recently.
Combined they have just two goals since February 1 (one for each) and have been ice cold when it comes to producing offense. Rodrigues’ struggles go back even further, as he has just one goal since January 7 (a stretch where Carter has four goals).
Something to be concerned about as we approach the trade deadline, the stretch run of the regular season, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Or just a couple of poorly timed cold streaks all happening at the exact same time?
Maybe a little of both.
Carter, Rodrigues, Heinen, McGinn, and Kapanen have all seen dramatic drops in their individual shooting percentages over the past 20 or so games, all of them shooting below 7 percent during that stretch. Rodrigues has just one goal on his past 56 shots. Carter has four on his past 61 shots. McGinn has two on his past 28 shots. Kapanen has just two on his past 35 shots.
As a group, those players are shooting just 5 percent over the past two months. That is LOW even for depth players, and there is absolutely an element of bad luck to that. The thing we overlook the most in hockey is how streaky goal scoring is at the NHL level, even for the very best players. It is not uncommon for players like Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, and even Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews to go seven or eight games without a goal. A 40-goal scorer does not average a goal every other game over the course of a season. They score six goals in four games, 1 goal in eight games, nine goals in seven games, 0 goals in seven games. They come and go in bunches. If that is true for the elite of the elite, imagine how true it is for the second-and third-tier players.
Rodrigues, Carter, McGinn, Heinen were all scoring goals in bunches at the start of the season. Lately, they have all cooled off.
The positive sign for Rodrigues and Carter is that even though some of their individual shot metrics have dipped a bit, they are still getting shots on goal, averaging close to three shots on goal per game over this stretch. The chances are still, for the most part, there. The puck is just not going in for them right now. Head coach Mike Sullivan talked about this recently on how they are still getting their looks, but the puck is simply not going in for them. Even though Rodrigues’ start to the season was a shock, I am still fairly confident that he and Carter can start finding the back of the net again if they keep generating shots and chances.
I am a little more concerned about Kapanen and McGinn because not only has the offense dried up, they are barely averaging a shot on goal per game. McGinn’s struggles probably stand out more because he has spent some time in elevated roles (like the brief stretch on Malkin’s wing) where his lack of scoring would really be noticed. When Zucker gets back, and with everybody healthy, he settles into more of the defensive role he is built for and is probably fine.
Kapanen is just a mess no matter who he plays with at the moment. Not finishing, not creating, not really making any sort of a positive impact. It is just not working.
If you trust Carter and Rodrigues to play through this little goal scoring funk (I would; you should), get Jason Zucker and Teddy Blueger back, and make an addition at the deadline to potentially replace Kapanen, there should be enough balance on this roster.