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Examining the improvements (and shortcomings) of the Penguins new bottom-six forwards

There are some improvements here, but also still some flaws

Calgary Flames v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins had a lot of flaws, and at the top of that list was the fact the forward group was too top heavy and dependent on the top-six.

While the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines mostly played great (and fully healthy for the entire season), the third-and fourth-lines were an offensive (and defensive) blackhole that got badly outplayed every single night.

If Crosby and Malkin were not on the ice, the Penguins were simply not going to score goals.

Even worse, they were going to give up a ton.

In response to that, new general manager Kyle Dubas pretty much overhauled the entire bottom-six.

Drew O’Connor was given a bigger role.

Radim Zohorna was brought back to the organization.

Lars Eller, Noel Acciari, Matt Nieto and Vinnie Hinostroza were signed.

Pretty much the only returning player from last year’s bottom-six is Jeff Carter, and his role has been reduced to that of a typical fourth-liner where he plays about eight minutes per night.

The concern with the new-look group on paper is that it would have a lot of the same flaws as last year’s group — not anywhere near enough offense. The top-six (and the power play) were still going to need to carry the goal-scoring.

But the one thing that stood out to me from the very beginning with the new bottom-six group is that pretty much every player acquired was still a very good defensive presence. It was almost as if the mindset was something along the lines of: We know this group is not going to score. There are not a lot of available options to find people that can score here. So we might as well make sure they do not give up any goals.

I had some doubts as to how that would (or could) work in practice, but the logic behind it at least seemed somewhat sound. You at least have to be able to do something well to help the team.

So with that being said, let’s take a quick comparison to see if there have been any improvements (or continued failings) for this new-look group.

Here are some numbers through the first 21 games of this season for the team’s new bottom-six, and how that compared to the production of the third and fourth lines through the same number of games a season ago.

Untitled

Season/Category 2022-23 2023-24 Difference
Season/Category 2022-23 2023-24 Difference
Goals For% 50.0 58.3 8.30
GF/60 2.04 2.13 0.09
GA/60 2.13 1.46 -0.67
xGF% 49.3 49.1 -0.20
xGF/60 2.41 2.55 0.14
xGA/60 2.48 2.64 0.16
SC% 45.3 45.9 0.60
HDSC% 44.2 52.6 8.40

The biggest areas of improvement are in the fact this year’s group is actually outscoring opponents by a pretty respectable clip, has a big edge in high-danger scoring chance share, and has actually allowed few fewer goals (nearly a half goal per 60 minutes less).

The big negatives, however, are the fact the offensive numbers from a goal-scoring perspective (and expected goals perspective) are virtually identical to what we saw a year ago.

So it is basically exactly what I just outlined above. You are not going to score, so you better not allow anything.

The one thing that I think has hurt this group over the past few games was the injuries to both Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell, forcing O’Connor and Zohorna into different roles in the top-six. That broke up the new-look third line of Eller, Zohorna and O’Connor that was actually playing a pretty strong level and helping to drive almost all of those improvements in terms of goal differentials and shutting teams down. In 102 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey they have outscored teams by a 6-3 margin and own a better than 55 percent share of expected goals and scoring chances. They are crushing it together.

But with the organizational lack of depth offensively, any injury that bumps one (or two) of them up the lineup has a trickle down effect on the rest of the lineup.

It also puts more pressure on the power play to start coming through. Because that was also a big part of the formula for success. Get your offense from the top-six and the power play, hope the bottom-six can play to a tie, and go from there.

Everything is holding up its end of the bargain except for the power play.

Even if the power play does eventually start producing you would still like to see a little more offense from the bottom half of your lineup. That is still something that can be addressed at some point this season, and will probably need to be addressed if the Penguins are going to have any hopes of doing anything in the playoffs or being any sort of a Stanley Cup contender.

[Data In This Post Via Natural Stat Trick]