Sam Hitchcock looks around the NHL in Between the Bluelines. Follow him @intellighockey and intelligenthockey.com
Same old Chris Kunitz?
There were some rumblings at the All-Star game that Chris Kunitz is not the same player that he was at his height. From a scoring perspective, Kunitz’s peak was during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. However, his possession stats this year are the best they have been in a few seasons.
The lockout-shortened season in 2012-13 was when Kunitz posted his career best 1.08 points per game. Last season, he was at .87. Currently, he is at .70. He floated in the 70s before though, in 2011-12 and 2010-11 when his points per game were .74. and .73 respectively. In 2008-09, when the Penguins won the Cup, he had a .90 points per game but that was based on only 20 games. The next season his points per game dipped to .64.
Kunitz’s possession stats have been robust this season. Last season he had a Corsi of 52.3, sixth best among forwards. This season he has a Corsi of 57.1, best on the team. This is the best season in controlling possession for Kunitz since 2011-12 when he had a 57.9 Corsi percentage and led the team.
His fewer points this season have been offset by Kunitz’s strengthened possession numbers. His play is extremely important to Pittsburgh’s success, so this bears watching.
Assessing the Penguins’ flaws
A franchise possessing two of the best five centers in the NHL would appear to give a team a big advantage over the competition. But there are serious non-goaltender issues with the Pens, which is disheartening because it would be a lot of fun to see Crosby and Malkin make a deep run.
There are far too many games when the Penguins don’t manage the puck well – and when they rely too much on the power play and Crosby and Malkin at even strength. The Penguins have games where they have poor gaps. There are times when they look significantly slower than their opponents. In most contests, their bottom six is useless except to kill penalties. And Pittsburgh takes far too many penalties. In fact, they are the most penalized team per game in the league.
The Penguins are probably at their best when they are on the forecheck and can initiate the cycle. Crosby and Malkin are excellent on the rush, but collectively this team wants to gain the zone and create a scoring chance off its puck movement and presence around the net. Unfortunately, too often the Pittsburgh passes up very good looks to try to achieve an even better look.
The question that needs to be answered in the playoffs is: Can Pittsburgh win ugly? Can they consistently win when they do not have their A game? And conversely, is their extra gear or A game that much better than everyone else’s? As of this writing, the Penguins have won three games in a row, but it is hard to feel like they are noticeably better than any of the teams in the East who will be joining them in the playoffs. The Eastern Conference has improved dramatically and the gap has shrunk. For a team whose Cup window is closing, that is a serious problem.
Sometimes life isn’t fair
The Los Angeles Kings lost Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov. They have played nearly 350 games since the start of the 2011-12 season (and this doesn’t count the games Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar and Co. played in Sochi). And, as Craig Custance pointed out recently in his daily blog, at the time the Kings lost to the Panthers on February 5th, they only had more regulation wins this season than the dismal Coyotes and Oilers in the Eastern Conference.
That seems like a long, long time ago. The Kings are likely going to make the playoffs and are poised to repeat. They have been monsters at controlling shot attempts, and sit first in the NHL in Corsi For percentage at 5 on 5. They even traded for coveted top-four defenseman Andrej Sekera to help solidify their defensive group! Sekera is a skilled ice-tilting defenseman who had a 53.2 Corsi for the Carolina Hurricanes. The Kings got what they needed, and the rest of the Western Conference weeps.
Frans Nielsen stutter step
Watch out future opponents! Frans Nielsen has a mean stutter step that freezes the opposing skater before he blows by them. Nielsen is a better puck-handler than most people realize, and he pulls off this move very effectively. Teammate Kyle Okposo’s fake shot-that-rolls-to-his-backhand is his pet move, and it would be nice to hear from a third party which player has the more impactful fake.
Detroit zone entries
The Red Wings are the best-coached team in the NHL and watching their zone entries on the power play engenders the same feeling one gets walking through the Louvre: This is a stunning human achievement and I should appreciate this. The Red Wings’ precision, timing, and awareness are three integral factors that make their ability to gain the offensive zone appear effortless.
Not all of the Red Wings’ entries feature four-to-five touches as the puck whizzes around. The entry can be simple if the defense allows them space. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Tomas Tatar can have that chilling effect. But when the Red Wings need to make an extra pass or two to gain entry, the ornate arrival into the zone is festooned on the television screen for all to enjoy.