2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins – Forwards

I did this for the Seattle Kraken so I figured I would do the same and take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins roster for the 2021-22 NHL season. First up will be the forwards, they have 17 forwards under contract who have played in the NHL at some point over the past 4 seasons as well as one pro tryout. The data I am using comes from Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference and we will be looking at a 4-year average from 2017-21 as well as last year’s performance as a growth comparison.

Bear in mind that there will be numerous sample size issues, for instance in the 1-year data only four forwards skated over 750 minutes while 11 broke the 500 minute threshold. Overall the data for Zohorna, O’Connor, and Angello is all but useless as is the 1-year data for Simon. Because of how much lower it is, in extremely sheltered sub-4th line minutes, we should also take Lafferty with a grain of salt. That still leaves us with 13-14 relevant data points to analyze.

Player Usage – Time on Ice

The x-axis is power play time on ice, the further to the right the more that player is deployed in man advantage situations. The y-axis is penalty kill time on ice, the further up the more than player is deployed in shorthanded situations. The size of the bubble is even strength time on ice, with yellow bubble representing values above the league average. Players in the bottom right quadrant are PP specialists while those in the top left are PK specialists. The top right quadrant are guys who get used in all situations while the bottom left quadrant is for sheltered players who the staff doesn’t trust in special teams situations.

We have a pretty clear split delineating who the top 7 forwards are as well as the top PP unit and three of the primary penalty killers. It is less clear cut who the other players on the PP and 4th PK player should be, particularly when comparing the 1-year to the 4-year data, but we can see that the Penguins tend to prefer to keep their PP and PK separate rather than having guys that go both ways and that their top 6 are high scoring power play specialists while the penalty killers come from the bottom 6. We also see that Zohorna, O’Connor, Angello, Lafferty, and possibly Simon are destined to be AHL call-ups or at the very least limited usage 13th F who spend the majority of the season watching from the press box.

Player Usage – Zone Starts

The x-axis is offensive zone starts, the further to the right the more often the player starts a shift on an O-zone draw. The y-axis is defensive zone starts, the higher up the more often they are deployed to start shifts in their own end. The bubble size is zone start percent, with yellow bubbles meaning they are used more O-zone than D-zone situations. Players on the bottom right quadrant have sheltered zone starts either because of their offensive talent of more likely due to their defensive shortcomings. Players on the top left quadrant have tough starts with a heavy D-zone tilt, either because they are trusted to keep the opponent from scoring or sometimes because they lack any offensive ability. Those on the top right quadrant are two-way forwards who can be trusted to defend in their own end but also know how to contribute offensively. Then the bottom left quadrant are the most sheltered limited usage call-ups who are primarily deployed in the neutral zone.

The zone starts, particularly from the 2020-21 season, have clear clusters of a sheltered offensive focused top 6, balanced 3rd line, and defensively focused 4th line. Because the top 9 gets the majority of the O-zone time that means they can’t shelter the replacement level players the way most teams do so their extra forwards also have a heavy D-zone tilt.

Possession – Goals Above Replacement

GAR is primarily based upon puck possession, despite the name the on-ice team goals for/against are not used in its calculation, so unfortunately it still has problems as a catch all evaluation tool. The x-axis is the offense metric, so players further to the right are better able to generate shot attempts against their opponents. The y-axis is the defense metric, so players further up are more capable of suppressing their opponents shot attempts. The bubble size is overall GAR, with yellow bubble representing those who are performing above league average. The top right quadrant would be two-way forwards who perform well at both ends of the ice. The bottom right quadrant would be offensive forwards who excel at creating offense but are a liability in their own end. The top left quadrant are defensive forwards who limit chances on their own net but are less effective at generating offense. The bottom left quadrant are those who performed below replacement level and were not effective at either end of the ice.

This of course is where we see exactly how much Zohorna is a product of sample size and that we need to ignore the data until he plays enough minutes for us to see what kind of player he really is. Angello and O’Connor also appear to be outliers. Ignoring Zohorna, the 4-year data show us that the top 6 are the offensively talented players: Crosby and Zucker as two-way guys while Malkin, Rust, Guentzel, and Kapanen are offensive specialists. Then in the bottom 6 we see Aston-Reese, Blueger, Heinen, Simon, Rodrigues, and McGinn as defensive specialists while Boyle, Carter, and Lafferty, and were ineffective at both ends of the ice. There are some differences in last year’s data, such as Malkin and Zucker both underperforming while Carter was better than expected as a two-way guy.

Production – Point Shares

Point shares is a goal based metric, but the major downside is that it uses plus/minus to calculate the defensive point shares, which unfortunately makes offensive players seem more defensively competent than they really are and underscores the ability of defensive forwards. It also is based on overall production rather than just even strength, so power play specialists get an additional boost while penalty killers are not rewarded for their talent. Lastly because it is based on the amount of points in the standing the player contributed to it does mean a really good player on a team with few wins doesn’t stand out as much as an average player leeching off a President’s Trophy candidate team. The x-axis offensive point shares, the further right the more goals their team scores. The y-axis is defensive point shares, the higher up the more a player outscores their opponents. The bubble size is overall point shares, with yellow bubbles telling us they are above average. The top right quadrant should be two-way forwards, but because of the plus/minus thing it really only tells us a player scores more than they give up. The bottom right are offensive forwards who are defensive liabilities. The top left are defensive specialists who lack the ability to contribute offensively. The bottom left are poor performers who got outworked at both ends of the ice.

Again we see the best offensive production from the top 6 with Crosby, Rust, Guentzel, and Kapanen being two-way forwards while Malkin, Zucker, and Carter are more offensively focused. The main defensive specialists are Aston-Reese, Blueger, Heinen, McGinn, and Simon. Lafferty, Rodrigues, and Boyle are overall ineffective. Last year’s production we also find Blueger and Carter amongst the two-way guys while Heinen and Simon fell in amongst those who struggled at both ends of the ice.

Depth Chart

1st Guentzel-Crosby-Rust / 1st Guentzel-Crosby-Rust

2nd Heinen-Malkin-Kapanen / 2nd Zucker-Carter-Kapanen

3rd Zucker-Carter-Rodrigues / 3rd Heinen-Rodrigues-Simon

4th Aston-Reese-Blueger-McGinn / 4th Aston-Reese-Blueger-McGinn

13th Simon / 13th Lafferty

We have to look at the depth chart in two different ways: first is what it could look like if everybody is healthy, but we need to take into account that Malkin is expected to start the season on the LTIR so need to be prepared for what it looks like with Carter bumped up to 2C. We can also look at it from two perspectives, with the trios remaining together as a full unit, but a few years ago they experimented with a concept of matching up duos and using a rotating winger so we can also try to view the combos from that perspective.

I do want to take a brief moment to address the tryout option of Boyle. With the injury to Malkin it is tempting to consider bringing in Boyle as a 4C, particularly as unlike Simon and Lafferty he has played significant special teams minutes especially on the PP. However, he will be turning 37 this December and hasn’t played in over a year, he last suited up when Florida was eliminated in the qualifying round of the 2020 playoffs. I would prefer that they give his sweater and ice time to a younger guy who can develop and grow and contribute for years to come. However, if they do sign him its not the end of the world, he would be an ideal 13th F in a perfectly healthy lineup, allowing Simon and Lafferty to get more playing time in the AHL. The Penguins aren’t known for having a perfectly healthy lineup, however, and we are already anticipating starting the season without Malkin.

If we look at it purely from the perspective of player usage, TOI% and ZS%, then we see the top 6 clusters are Guentzel-Crosby-Rust and Zucker-Malkin-Kapanen with Carter slotting in for Malkin to start the season. Crosby and Guentzel have been excellent together for years and Rust has a history of playing well with both Crosby and Malkin, so whether we look at is as a trio or using the Guentzel-Crosby duo with Rust as a floating winger we are golden. However, while Malkin and Kapanen played well together he has been awful alongside Zucker, so either we hope that Zucker plays up to his potential this year or else must find another option to slot up to the top 6. Oddly though Zucker played well with Carter, so for now the Zucker-Carter-Kapanen line should be a good combination. However, when everybody is healthy we may be better off splitting them into duos of Malkin-Kapanen and Zucker-Carter and figure out who to slot into the other wings.

Looking at player usage it is obvious that Blueger and Aston-Reese are a duo but the guys with similar TOI% have more of an O-zone tilt and the guys with similar ZS% have incredibly limited TOI%. Looking at the 4-year data Heinen and McGinn have similar usage so it is tempting to make a 3rd line of Heinen-Carter-McGinn in a perfectly healthy lineup, but neither of them are naturally right wingers and as previously mentioned Malkin is injured so they would need a temporary center while Carter is in the top 6. Also they are new to the team but are the McCann and Tanev replacements respectively so we may just want to look at it as if they would fill in their roles. The most likely 12th and 13th to flesh out the roster based on their TOI% are Rodrigues and Simon, but where they fit in the lineup remains to be seen, and with Malkin injured may mean they are both dressed while either Lafferty or Boyle serve as the 13th F. Oddly enough both of them, in their somewhat limited usage, played more with the top 9 than 4th liners. Rodrigues’ most frequent linemates last year were McCann, Kapanen, Zucker, and Guentzel while the last time Simon was in Pittsburgh he was in the top 6 skating alongside Crosby or Malkin.

So in a perfectly healthy lineup our core couplets would be Guentzel-Crosby on the 1st line, Malkin-Kapanen on the 2nd, Zucker-Carter on the 3rd, and Aston-Reese-Blueger on the 4th with Rust, Heinen, McGinn, and Rodrigues or Simon as options on the other wing. It would be a shame to break up the top line after the success they had, so it would make sense to keep Rust with Crosby, particularly since Malkin already has a right-handed RW in Kapanen. Because he was acquired as the McCann replacement and we saw success with McCann skating alongside Malkin I would suggest Heinen would be the likely candidate to join him as the 2nd line LW, but I can’t rule out the possibility that they intended to reunite Simon with Malkin. Skipping past the 3rd line for a moment, as McGinn is the new Tanev proxy it would make sense for him to join Blueger on the 4th line, even if he is unaccustomed to skating the heavy D-zone tilt that they will be faced with, although if he skated more minutes Lafferty would be a better fit with their usage but I can’t see him passing Rodrigues or even Simon on the depth chart. That leaves us with the question of who joins Zucker and Carter on the 3rd line? The obvious choice, as a right-handed shooter, would be Rodrigues, who is also capable of sliding into the middle as the 3C while Malkin is injured if they don’t want to split up Blueger’s line. This leaves Simon and maybe Lafferty as scratches, both of whom may be waived in camp just to see who will clear, while Angello is waived and Zohorna and O’Connor are both sent down as waiver exempt AHL guys.

PP1 Rust-Crosby-Guentzel-Malkin

PP2 Kapanen-Carter-Zucker-Heinen

PK1 Blueger-McGinn

PK2 Carter-Aston-Reese

The top power play unit from last year should remain unchanged, the problem of course is that with Malkin out to start the season they are left with a big hole to fill. This is one area in which signing Boyle would be tempting as he actually has decent PP stats, although presumably he is the net front guy so he wouldn’t be a direct replacement for Malkin’s half-wall position. The extra in a perfectly healthy lineup would be Rodrigues, I don’t imagine he would fill in for Malkin on the top unit, particularly since they already have Rust and Letang as right-handed shots. They would be better off either bumping up Carter to replace Malkin and slotting in Rodrigues to take over at C or perhaps more aptly bumping up Heinen and letting Rodrigues play wing on the 2nd unit. Or perhaps going with two D on one of the units, if they bump up Heinen and use Marino and Matheson together on the 2nd unit they retain their balance of two right-handed shots, one up front and one on D.

Looking at the option for shorthanded forwards, McGinn joins them as the new Tanev replacement so it makes sense to pair him with Blueger on the top unit, although personally I like Blueger-Aston-Reese as a duo and their stats together were fairly decent. However, it is more likely they will stick with what worked last year and thus use Carter with Aston-Reese on the 2nd unit. However, as the Penguins don’t seem to like to have guys play both PP and PK one option would be to let Rodrigues center the 2nd PK unit as Carter is slated for the 2nd PP unit. However, with Malkin out they may well be using Rodrigues on the PP as well so its not a bad idea to let Carter be the lone two-way center who mans the dot on the 2nd unit of both special teams, but Rodrigues posted similar numbers so I’m not averse to slotting him in. The next in line on the PK other than the obvious Rodrigues at center are Heinen or Rust as wings, although based on last year’s TOI and Rust’s role on the 1st line and top PP unit I would be more likely to utilize Heinen on the PK.

One final note is that this data can only analyze those players who have NHL experience. We can’t rule out the possibility that somebody like Zohorna or O’Connor could play so well in camp that they earn themselves a spot in the lineup despite being waiver exempt. Or perhaps a rookie with top 6 potential like Poulin and Legare will be ready to make the leap into the NHL. Hextall has also expressed an opinion that he thinks Hallander may be capable of stepping in and winning an NHL position in training camp, he has potential as a defensively responsible bottom 6 center. Less likely, but not out of the realm of possibility, I would suggest you keep an eye on Bjorkqvist, he most likely won’t be on the opening night roster but he could possibly earn himself a call-up throughout the season.

Author: TKNoodle

I write about hockey, mostly focused on the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vegas Golden Knights. NHL, AHL (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Chicago Wolves), ECHL (Wheeling Nailers), and various prospects from my teams playing in Europe (SHL, Liiga, KHL, etc...), the Canadian Major Juniors (OHL, QMJHL, and WHL), and in the NCAA (and some in lower tier juniors prior to joining the NCAA).

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