Even though there were a couple of concerning developments to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season-opening loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night, I am not going to overreact to it.
A lot of those concerns were repeats of everything we saw last season, from the inability to hold a multiple goal lead, to a power play that spends all of its time passing around the perimeter and not capitalizing in a big moment.
I am confident they can fix both of those things. On paper, it does look like a significantly better team defensively and I am not going to let one game dictate my thoughts on that, and I want to see more than two power play opportunities before I jump to any conclusions on what the power play is going to do with Erik Karlsson in the mix.
But the one development on Tuesday that continued to baffle me is how much the Penguins struggled to finish and turn their scoring chances into goals.
The bottom line is only scoring two goals is not going to beat many teams in the NHL on an average night.
In fact, it won’t beat any team on an average night.
And you would like to see this offense be able to generate more than two goals against that defense and against Petr Mrazek.
It certainly was not for a lack of chances.
Sidney Crosby and Reilly Smith both had breakaway chances. The Penguins had multiple odd-man rush attempts, including a 3-on-1 break in the first period. All of them were stopped. They generated 10 high-danger chances and 2.58 expected goals during 5-on-5 play, and in all situations were up to 3.31 expected goals.
Those numbers might not be as high as you would want or expect, but the Penguins still underperformed them in terms of actually scoring goals. And that was one of the many problems the Penguins had last season. Especially during 5-on-5 play.
This may not be the perfect way to evaluate this sort of thing, and it is especially dependent on your belief in how accurate expected goals are, but during the 2022-23 season no team in the NHL had a bigger negative gap between their expected goals and actual goals than the Penguins.
They underperformed that number by 0.54 goals per game.
In terms of generating scoring opportunities, the Penguins were one of the best teams in the league and averaged 3.1 expected goals per game during 5-on-5 play. That was the fourth best mark in the league behind only Carolina, New Jersey and Florida — three pretty good offensive teams.
But in terms of actually scoring goals the Penguins were only 19th in the league at 2.57 goals per game at even-strength.
During the 2021-22 season, their actual goals vs. expected goals was more even (2.68 vs. 2.66) but was still only 20th in the league in terms of that difference.
Compared to the rest of the league, it is two years in a row where they did worse than most of the league in terms of turning their chances into goals. And that just seems to defy logic when you consider the top-end talent on the roster. Especially when in the years prior to the 2021-22 season the Penguins consistently outperformed their expected goal numbers.
Is it the sign of a team that is getting older?
Is it a reflection on the makeup of the bottom half of the roster where the third-and fourth-lines are lacking in offensive talent?
Is it an indication that they do not get enough traffic in front of the net?
Or is it just an extended run of bad shooting luck?
Most accurately, it is probably a mix of all four factors.
The biggest culprits in falling short of goals vs. expected were primarily players in the bottom-six. But even top-line players like Jake Guentzel (-0.14) and Rickard Rakell (-0.24) were below the expected output. I find it difficult to put too much blame on them given the fact they combined for 64 goals a year ago, but even then it wasn’t really driven by 5-on-5 numbers. Guentzel scored a league-high seven empty-net goals, while the two of them also combined for 22 power play goals. Between the power play and Guentzel’s empty-netters, that was nearly half of their goal output.
Those goals still count and are still important, obviously, but when it comes to their 5-on-5 output it was probably a little lower than what they should or could have done.
It is something to watch this season.
I am not worried about the Penguins’ ability to put themselves in good scoring positions. They will do that.
But given the defensive mindset and construction of the bottom-six they are probably not going to provide a ton of offense, which is going to put a lot of emphasis on the top-two lines and the power play to carry the offense. That means not only putting themselves in scoring position, but also finding ways to score. Whether that be by creating more traffic, getting better shooting luck, or any other factor that needs to be in play the offense simply needs to be more efficient when it comes to creating goals.
[Data In This Post Via Natural Stat Trick]