This is probably the biggest area Phil Kessel’s departure will impact. The power play didn’t run through Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It ran through Phil Kessel. Not only in the zone when it was set up, but most times he was the player Kris Letang would drop the puck to on the breakout. Kessel would carry the mail and wiggle through the neutral zone full of flat footed penalty killers.
Some people don’t like the drop pass breakout. I am not one of them. It is a great tactic to disrupt the killer’s ability to angle, maintain gap control, and keep their pace. The catch to using this style of breakout is you need to have skilled players who can skate. The Penguins don’t have to worry about this because they still have them. It was a luxury having Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin all available to do it. However, most times it was Phil. He was great at it. His choices were usually spot on and the team rarely had full on struggles getting into the zone. The benefit of Phil lugging the puck was having both Crosby and Malkin on each side of the blue line. If the killers pinched he could easily kick things to either side. Having elite players on the blue line who are physically gifted and able to keep control is huge to have. Without Phil I would imagine Evgeni Malkin is best suited to carry it up, but who will take Malkin’s place? I think Jake Guentzel has the skill set to do it. We’ll have to see it in practice.
Once the Penguins get set up in the zone is when the real changes are going to occur. Phil Kessel was an elite half way player on the power play. After Mario Lemieux retired I can’t think of a consistently good presence on the left side until Phil Kessel showed up. Having elite talent on both sides of the ice has such a huge advantage. Kessel was great at working the puck from low to high as well as high to low. Kessel was so good in reading the 2v1’s and making good choices. Reading 2v1’s and choosing the right path of action is the power play in a nutshell. Kessel dictated the play to force the killers to make choices. One simple, yet effective, method of doing this was skating backwards down the left wall all the way down close to the goal line. He was looking to drag the top penalty killer down low to get the puck up to Kris Letang. By having the puck in a passing/shooting position the entire process Kessel was able to get greedy on some occasions and feed Crosby on the back door, find Hornqvist/Guentzel in a soft spot in the slot, or go all the way over to Evgeni Malkin. He was able to scan these high-danger options while always having the safe play to Letang in his back pocket. None of this is tactically complicated, but you need a player who is able to execute as a passer. Phil is obviously excellent in that regard.
Running the power play through Phil allowed Sidney Crosby some flexibility on where he played. It’s no secret that I believe in #SidDownLow. I think it showcases and maximizes Crosby’s grinder skill set which is among the best ever in the sport. The last two years on the power play were Crosby’s second and third best points per 60 of his career. Having Phil paved the way for Crosby to get those different looks. Also, Evgeni Malkin’s best points per 60 on the power play was in 2017-18.
There are multiple paths the Penguins can explore on their power play without Kessel. Their power play can still be great because they still have a lot of talent. It just won’t look the same, it can’t. One look the team can go with is using three forwards and two defenseman. More and more the league is shifting to the four forward and one defense approach, but the Penguins might not stay with it. The biggest problem is the lack of dynamic right handed players on the roster at the moment. Nick Bjugstad, Bryan Rust, and especially Patric Hornqvist lack the ability to give a poor man’s Kessel look on the power play. That leaves Kris Letang and Justin Schultz as the right handed players to give the power play balance on both sides. I would have Justin Schultz play the top and I would put Letang on the left half wall because of his skating ability and ability to protect the puck if needed. This would potentially leave Malkin and Crosby to do the same things they’ve been doing and I like that.
Another changing dynamic on the power play could be the transition from Patric Hornqvist to Jake Guentzel as the Penguins net front presence on the power play. Rutherford has alluded to it and it is a change I can very much get behind. It does create a situation where Hornqvist’s 5.3M cap hit becomes rather excessive. It was always going to trend this way. It was a concern the day his new extension was signed. Hornqvist possesses a full no-trade clause at the moment so moving him is more difficult than finding another team who likes him. For me, Guentzel is a better skater, better passer, thinks the game better, and is no slouch in front of the net himself. He might not act like a spaz in front of the net, but there are more than one way to be an effective net front presence.
A wild card in the power play discussion is the player who will be replacing Phil Kessel on the roster and that is Alex Galchenyuk. He has a great shot. If the team wanted to roll with four forwards they could do so. The biggest change I would make to accommodate Galchenyuk would be to slide Malkin up top and push Letang/Schultz to the left. Crosby would stay down low and Galchenyuk would be on the right circle in a shooting position. For example
I think it could work, but it is one thing for Evgeni Malkin to push #SidDownLow it is another thing for Galchenyuk to do so. I think there is something to be said about the right half wall position. There is prestige to it and it is just my own speculation, but I don’t think Crosby loves giving that spot up. If Evgeni Malkin plays up top I think it is a solid bet Crosby will be on the right circle. This is why I believe the Penguins will probably lean towards the three forwards and two defense option mentioned above.
Whatever they go with it is going to look way different. Phil Kessel was an awesome presence on the left side of the power play, the best on the Penguins since Lemieux.
Or maybe acquire Nikita Gusev and this whole blog will have been a waste of time. I actually like that idea the most.