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Penguins lower lines are doing a LOT better this season

Kyle Dubas revamped the bottom end of the roster this summer, and halfway through this season we can see how that is paying off in a positive way

Pittsburgh Penguins v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Ben Ludeman/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the major storylines in Pittsburgh from last off-season was Kyle Dubas revamping the Penguins’ bottom-six forward group. These 5v5 splits that we wrote about last April were one major area that doomed the team in 2022-23 and was a significant reason to point to Ron Hextall’s shortcomings as a roster builder. Here’s the unrefreshing reminder of last year’s results in that area.

With both Crosby+Malkin: 1 goal for, 0 goals against (+1)
Crosby: 67 goals for, 51 goals against (+16)
Malkin: 53 goals for, 50 goals against (+3)
When neither Crosby or Malkin on ice: 47 goals for, 71 goals against (-24)

For a further look at what a healthy balance for Pittsburgh looks like, the 2020-21 team serves as a great example. This was only a 56-game shortened season, but the Pens won the division fairly recently in post-peak 87/71 days in large part due to the contributions of the lower lines (also known as when they had their Buzzsaw fourth line in top form, and productive Jeff Carter added to a third line with names like Kasperi Kapanen/Jared McCann/Evan Rodrigues).

With both Crosby+Malkin: 0 goals for, 0 goals against (0)
Crosby: 40 goals for, 31 goals against (+9)
Malkin: 20 goals for, 21 goals against (-1)
When neither Crosby or Malkin on ice: 66 goals for, 48 goals against (+18)

As a result of the degradation from 2021’s effective group morphing into 2023’s disaster, Dubas cut ties with many players in those roles. Moving on were Ryan Poehling, Mikael Granlund, Josh Archibald, Danton Heinen and Nick Bonino, to continue the work Hextall already started in jettisoning Kapanen, Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn during the campaign last season.

Dubas then brought in the current batch of players to the mix we have seen this season in Lars Eller, Noel Acciari, Matt Nieto, Radim Zohorna, Valtteri Puustinen, Vinnie Hinostroza and Jansen Harkins. Those newcomers joined the only two holdovers from 2022-23 on the bottom-six; one of them being a player the team contractually could not move on from in Carter, and the other being the sole survivor of the “Great Forward Revamp of 2023” in Drew O’Connor, who the team chose to keep and re-sign.

Now getting past the halfway through the season, it’s a good time to check on how the changes have impacted the splits for when Crosby and Malkin aren’t on the ice and the third and fourth lines are out there.

It’s helpful and gives the exercise more weight considering that Crosby and Malkin have played in every game so far this year, as both did last year. They have been complete factors of centering the top two lines, making it very easy to line up that when both those stars are off the ice, it means the lower lines are on it. Here’s what those 5v5 splits are looking like this season through 42 games:

With both Crosby+Malkin (20:52): 1 goal for, 0 goals against (+1)
Crosby (611:30): 40 goals for, 26 goals against (+14)
Malkin (568:13): 24 goals for, 23 goals against (+1)
When neither Crosby or Malkin on ice (814:46): 26 goals for, 26 goals against (even)

The takeaways are immediate and astounding. Last year’s bottom-six was on ice for 71 GA at 5v5, an absurd amount that put the team down a goal in way too many games. This year’s bottom-six has stemmed the tide of goals against and are playing even hockey in the big picture. Taken just with 2023-24 values, even doesn’t offer a lot, but compared to last season’s disaster on the lower lines gives a big improvement for the team to work with.

The other figure that jumps out, which also aligns with the eye test, is just how good Crosby and Jake Guentzel have been with the first line’s sterling performance. At +14 in just half of a season, they’re almost to the overall impact of last year’s full season (+16). Malkin, as usual, is fighting to stay above the positive side at even strength but done so despite injuries to key wingers and often playing with unproductive forwards at times as well.

The season is only halfway done, but the indications are very clear that the major renovation of the lower lines has been a smash success for Dubas and the Penguins so far. They still have some bigger fish to fry as far as figuring out their power play, but Pittsburgh’s 5v5 results have come around.

As of yesterday, the team ranked 10th in the NHL with 91 5v5 goals for, and also sixth with just 75 goals allowed. With such results, a finger has to be pointed towards outstanding goaltending as a factor, but goaltending can also be a function of the quality of play in front of them. By all metrics and designs, including the most important one of actual goals against, Pittsburgh’s personnel changes to their forwards has been helpful towards righting the ship in the department of making them a quality 5v5 team once again through changes and improvement to their bottom two forward lines.