Pittsburgh Penguins: Life with Only Two First Lines

Updated: September 10, 2012 at 9:34 am by Jared Lunsford



With the possible exception of the 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, the Pittsburgh Penguins have the strongest outlook, both for the (2012-)2013 season and beyond. The main reasons are obvious – Crosby is signed long term, Malkin and Letang through 2013-2014 and James Neal through the 2015-2016 season. After failing in the Sutter and Parise sweepstakes, and a couple offseason moves to be discussed shortly, GM Ray Shero even has some cap room to play with.

The Staal Trade

Just before the draft, the Pens dealt fan favorite Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the Canes’ 8th overall pick which the Pens used on Portland Winterhawks defenseman Derrick Pouliot. Staal, whose contract would have been up July 2013, reportedly turned down a 10-year $60M deal. This made it very unlikely that the Pens could hold on to him at a reasonable cap hit given the other big contracts they have on the books or will have two to three seasons down the road. Based on that, I think the timing of the trade was perfect for the Penguins and the return quite good.

Let’s take a quick look at what the Pens lost and gained with this blockbuster.

Jordan Staal was Pittburgh’s tough-minutes center and a possession monster. Here’s the Pens’ forward usage by opponent TOI last season, courtesy of Eric T.:

You can see that Staal faced the oppositions’ best forwards, those that played the most minutes. He did not face the best defensemen, probably because the opponents would try to match up their best D pairings against the Malkin or Crosby line. Going by Corsi QoC or Corsi Rel QoC, Staal faced by far the toughest opposition. He also started in the defensive zone more than half the time, which is saying something on a team that dominated possession. Despite having among the toughest minutes in the league, he had a double-digit Corsi rate.

In Carolina, Brandon Sutter played slightly tougher minutes. He was also facing the oppositions’ best and started in the defensive-zone more often. This is largely due to the Hurricanes being a bad possession team, and his teammates were certainly not as good as Jordan Staal’s last year in Pittsburgh. His results, while not terrible, also weren’t particularly good. His zone-start adjusted Corsi rate was -6.2/60. For comparison, Jordan Staal’s zone-start adjusted Corsi rate was +12.4/60. Long term I think it was a good if necessary trade for the Pens but it’s pretty clear that next year the third line is going to take a big hit.


Now that I’ve covered the third line, let’s look at the top of the rotation. Most years the Sidney Crosby contract extension (12 years at a superstitious $8.7M per) would be the biggest story. The extension and Staal trade certainly make it seem like Shero and the Penguins are confident in Crosby’s health going forward. What should we expect out of Crosby, and Malkin for that matter?

Let’s start with scoring. Here’s a graph plotting their shots per game at all strengths over the last 6 seasons:

Malkin’s trend really jumps out. Whether it’s the popular media narrative of increasing his offseason work ethic, getting accustomed to North American play, better linemates, stepping up in Crosby’s absence or just that he’s coming into his prime, Malkin has improved steadily. It is fair to say that his production two seasons ago (15 goals, 37 points in 43 games) was more of a fluke than last year’s Hart trophy performance (50 goals, 109 points in 75 games). Both his personal and on-ice shooting percentages were a little above his career average, so we should probably expect a small drop. If he can avoid major injury and the NHL a lockout, something like 45 goals and 60 assists seems like a reasonable prediction.

As for Crosby, you have to keep in mind that he only played about a quarter of the 2011-2012 season so his stats, including shot rate, are subject to a lot of random luck. Shooting percentage is a great example of that: he personally shot at a career low percentage while his teammates were burying just about everything when he was on the ice. His on-ice shooting percentage at 5-on-5 was higher than his own shooting percentage both 5-on-5 and 5-on-4! This caused his weird statline of 29 assists but only 8 goals. It’s harder to predict what his output will be, but I see no reason to expect a drop from his career scoring rate which, over 75 games, would give him 39 goals and 67 assists.

In terms of underlying numbers, Crosby and Malkin have gone from being top young players to dominant possession players. This chart, plotting their 5-on-5 Corsi rates each of the last 5 seasons, speaks for itself.


Perhaps to clear room for a potential Suter and/or Parise signing, Pittsburgh traded shut-down defender Zbynek Michálek to Phoenix. There is media talk that Shero might try to trade for a top defenseman once the smoke clears on the CBA, but the Penguins are deep in defensive prospects that is’ possible they will promote from within.

Matt Niskanen recently signed a two-year extension and could certainly take top-four minutes. Young Simon Despres played sheltered minutes in 18 games last year and seems likely to be ready for a consistent bottom-pairing role this year. There are good 5-6 guys that played in Wilkes-Barre or their junior/college teams last year who could potentially step in and play a similar role to Despres’s last season, filling out the bottom pair. High scoring Portland Winterhawks defender Joe Morrow might be ready for a cup of coffee or two in the show for instance.

Suter certainly would have improved the squad (as he will the Wild and would have the other 28 teams he didn’t sign for) but the Penguins returning most of their defensemen is a good thing. I’m sure some will disagree, but the Penguins have one of the best defense corps in the NHL. Separating out forwards and defensemen is always a challenge, but here are some arguments that the Penguins’ blue line is a strength of the team.

First off, there’s shot suppression. The last three seasons the Penguins have been very good at it. Obviously part of that is the system and the forwards, but a lot is the blueliners as well. The Pens have been in the top 10 in shot rate against at 5-on-5 and in the top five at 4-on-5 each of the last three seasons:


Season 5-on-5 rank 4-on-5 Rank
2012 5 2
2011 9 3
2010 7 5

It’s worth noting that Staal missed 40 games in 2010-2011 and 20 in 2011-2012 so they were among the best teams in shot suppression even when they were lacking one of the league’s best defensive forwards for many games.

Let’s now turn to possession stats. As mentioned, it’s tough to separate out the forwards, and Pittsburgh has had the luxury of some elite ones. To deal with that let’s just look at time when none of Crosby, Malkin and Staal were on the ice last year: the Pens took 1,522 Corsi events at even strength with those three off the ice and gave up only 1,411 (+111). The fourth liners, plus third when Crosby was out, outplayed their opponents to a significant degree. 

The 2010-2011 season was eye-opening as well. Crosby missed 41 games, Staal 40 and Malkin 39 games but the Penguins remained a good team in possession. They were 5th in score-close Fenwick, though merely a solid 10th going by Eric T.’s score-adjusted Fenwick. Some of the role players on that team were and are very underrated (Tyler Kennedy) and others stepped up, but you can’t have your top forward lines get decimated by injury like that and still maintain strong possession numbers without having very good blueliners.

The Penguins defense consists of Letang plus a deep group that is solid if not spectacular. It’s easy to remember big errors some may still be trying to forget (a few Paul Martin shifts in) the Flyers series, but when you take everything into account I think it’s clear that Pittsburgh is more than adequate defensively.

There is one other thing that has made many Pens fans think a good D is bad…


Now that I’ve talked up the forwards and defensemen, let me end by discussing the one area where the team isn’t excellent-to-elite: goaltending.

Last June, Shero traded for Tomas Vokoun’s negotiation rights and then used them to sign him to a two-year deal. What should we expect out of him and Marc-Andre Fleury?

It’s pretty easy to predict what the Penguins will get out of their incumbent starter. Fleury will probably play at the same level he has for most of his career and be a below-average starter. Chase put some numbers to that, arguing against the absurd notion that Fleury warranted Vezina talk last season. Some fans claim that Fleury’s consistency is a virtue which not only begs the question but isn’t true, as Eric T. showed.

Vokoun was a great signing but is a bit of a gamble and his results are harder to predict. Unlike Fleury, he has been an above-average-to-elite goaltender throughout his career. There is a lot of potential upside there. The downside is that he’s 36 years old and had injury problems last season in Washington. Goalies are lasting longer these days, but injuries aren’t a good sign at Vokoun’s age and he certainly wouldn’t be the first to have his play drop off significantly at 35+.

Last year his stats took a drop from his stellar numbers of previous years, though it should be noted that they were still better than Fleury’s:


Goalie GP Save% ES Save%
Tomas Vokoun 48 0.917 0.927
Marc-Andre Fleury 67 0.913 0.915

Barring injury or a further drop in form, there should be little doubt that Vokoun is a better goaltender than Marc-Andre Fleury. It will be interesting to see what Bylsma does, particularly if Vokoun is outplaying the younger guy, whom I expect to be the starter at the beginning of the season.

Even if Vokoun’s level drops and he is only able to play 20 games, the Pens will be better in goal than last year.


The Penguins have had the worst injury luck in the league over the last couple seasons, but have nevertheless ramained one of the best teams in the East. When healthy, the lineup is up there with the Kings as one of the two best in the league. Pittsburgh is, and should be, the favorite to win the East. The defense is solid, they will have two elite lines and a decent shutdown line. Their goaltending potentially could go from below average to very good if Vokoun comes through, stays healthy and wins the starting job.

Even with the Staal trade, Crosby playing close to a full season and the improvement in goaltending means the Pens have a good chance to improve on last year’s record, which was third best in the NHL.