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Assessing the Penguins Bottom 6 Forward Unit

January 9, 2014, 8:29 AM ET [287 Comments]
Ryan Wilson
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The Pittsburgh Penguins are incredibly fortunate to have the kind of top 6 players that they do. Without Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Neal, and Jokinen the Penguins would be in a world of hurt.

The reason is because their bottom 6 forwards have been a dumpster fire this year. The bottom 6 has played at a very poor level for most of the year and it has forced Bylsma to use Crosby in more of a shutdown role than he would like. It’s crazy to think but Crosby could be producing even more points if he was given some more advantageous matchups. That is not an option for Bylsma because he needs the competent Crosby line to give him responsible and reliable defense minutes. Bylsma only has the luxury of trying to get the Malkin line advantageous zone starts away from the opponent’s top players, but even then the competition is stiffer than what the bottom 6 has been facing.

The bottom 6 grouping does not score, they do not possess the puck well, and they are not showing any signs of improving.

Here is the player usage for the Penguins forward group so far this season:

Outside of the sparingly used Zach Sill and newcomer Taylor Pyatt, it has been the Crosby unit who has taken the lion’s share of the tougher defensive assignments. Obviously Pascal Dupuis is no longer on that line but you can see when he was healthy they were the line that Bylsma leaned on the most.

Even with the added responsibilities of being Bylsma’s defensive line they are still out possessing the opponents at an impressive rate. Obviously the Crosby line has had a ton of offensive production as well.

The problem here is that all the bottom 6 regulars have been playing “less sheltered” minutes. This means that they are not necessarily getting favorable offensive zone start times, but more importantly they are not being fed to the opposition’s top players either. Not only has the bottom 6 been void of producing offense, but they are being dominated from a possession standpoint as well. Most of the bottom 6 players have a large red circle which indicates very poor possession rates.

Right now the Crosby line and Malkin line are scoring goals and that is carrying the Penguins to victory. How much longer can the status quo be sustainable though? At some point you need to cash in on some offense from the bottom 6 players.

To highlight just how bad the bottom 6 contributions have been I am going to take some of the offensive numbers that the folks over at The Pens Blog have compiled.

The Penguins have scored 37 goals in the past 10 games. Here are the contributions from the bottom 6:

Sutter 2G, 1A
Vitale 3A
Zolnierczyk 1G
Conner 1G

That’s it.

The top 6 has been responsible for 26 out of the Penguins last 30 goals.

That is pathetic.

This week the Penguins finally dropped out of the top 5 grouping of possession teams (Penguins are currently 11th). The play of the bottom 6 has been the main culprit.

Another side effect of the Penguins bottom 6 forward group being so bad is that it puts extra stress on the defense pairings who have to play with them. Life becomes difficult when the defensemen don't have quality players to head man the puck to. This creates a lot of tough minutes in your own zone and eventually mistakes will be made.

So what can be done to fix this issue?

For now? Nothing.

It would be wise for Ray Shero to play the waiting game. When Beau Bennett and Jayson Megna return to full health it will allow the Penguins decision makers to properly evaluate the situation. They will then be able to identify the proper direction they need to take in the trade market.

When the Penguins do get Bennett and Megna back, Brandon Sutter needs to get some help so that Bylsma can return him to a shutdown role and alleviate some of the pressure from Crosby/Kunitz.

A huge part of the playoffs is the chess game that goes on between coaches, otherwise known as line matching. Right now Bylsma is playing checkers, that won’t work come April, May, and June. A big part of Bylsma’s chess strategy is having a playable shutdown 3rd line. Brandon Sutter might not be Jordan Staal but he can certainly provide quality play in that role as long as he has legitimate help.

The goal for Ray Shero will be to figure out how he can give Sutter the help he needs.
The Dupuis injury is huge in this regard. Shero really has no choice but to add another forward via trade, even with a healthy Bennett and Megna. The only question will be if Shero goes big and acquires a top 6 forward, or if he tries to find a 3rd liner trusts that Beau Bennett can take the top spot on Crosby’s line.

The job that both the Crosby and Malkin lines have done with that absence of a competent bottom 6 forward grouping has been tremendous. They are playing like superstars, for now.

The fact that it is an Olympic year and the star players for Pittsburgh are being leaned on so heavily for both their Olympic team and their NHL team does not lend itself to fresh and rested players for the NHL playoffs. This could potentially be the Penguins downfall because they will need Crosby and Malkin to be at their best.

Thanks for reading!

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