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How Mike Johnston Is Propping Up His Lower End Players

October 19, 2014, 11:27 AM ET [70 Comments]
Ryan Wilson
Pittsburgh Penguins Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Penguins defeated the New York Islanders and in the process you could see why the Islanders are going to be a thorn in the side of the Penguins now.

The Penguins did well at even strength possessing the puck but they were not able to cash in on any goals at even strength (unless you are counting the empty net goal). Jaro Halak was solid and that will be a change from last year's below average goaltending for the Islanders. Now when they are outplayed at even strength they can stay close and steal games with their skilled players up front.

Fleury was able to match Halak's level of play in only allowing one goal on 35 shots.

The Penguins power play is still on fire. It went 2-4 while the Islanders went 0-6. This was the difference in the game. Evgeni Malkin was electric and it sure is fun when he goes into full blown Geno Machino mode.

Patric Hornqvist picked up another casual three points, as well as 12 shots. If you drafted this guy for your fantasy team you have yourself some fantasy gold. He is one point behind the league lead in points

Sidney Crosby is now tied with John Tavares for the league lead in points with nine. Crosby had two assists last night while Tavares was held in check. The two assists for Crosby gave him 500 for his career. Congratulations to Sid for a job well done.

The other five who did it quicker than Sid? Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Peter Stastny, and Peter Forsberg.

There was a tweet last night that caught my attention and made me look into things a little deeper.

It is interesting because it is the opposite of what the last regime did with their lower end players. Last year the bottom six players were given extremely low offensive zone starts. This year they are living in the offensive zone.

People are noticing that the Penguins bottom six forwards are playing in the other team's end more often are correct. Mike Johnston is starting them in the offensive zone very frequently.

Here are the players who have offensive zone starts above 60% so far this year

While it has certainly helped them stay afloat possession wise eventually when you hand out valuable offensive zone starts you would like to see some offense.

Zach Sill, Craig Adams, and Nick Spaling have combined for zero points this year even with being put in these advantageous situations.

Evgeni Malkin is no stranger to a high total of offensive zone starts, that treatment is usually reserved for high skilled offensive players. So far Geno has two even strength points through four games.

So if some of the lesser end players are taking up all the offensive zone starts who is eating up the defensive zone starts? Here are the players who are under 50% on the Penguins through four games:

Johnston is trusting his better players to take the tougher work.

Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist have three even strength points on the year, only Olli Maatta has as many as them. Then it is Malkin and Dupuis tied at 2 apiece. Nobody else has more than one.

You can certainly do things this way but over the long term the guys being protected by the advantageous offensive zone starts have to produce some offense.

Championships are won and lost at even strength. You need to be able to score at even strength. Power play opportunities don't come as often in the playoffs, the Penguins won't be able to rely on that (although they can more than some other teams).

Why do I bring this up? Only the Buffalo Sabres (3) have less even strength goals on the year than the Penguins (6).

Craig Adams and Zach Sill are still below replacement level players and will need to be replaced for the Penguins to be legitimate contenders. Even with their insanely high zone starts in the offensive zone they still rank as the bottom two forwards in even strength possession on the team.

For now it is OK but Mike Johnston can't keep hiding useless players when the stakes are raised. Coaches that have to "hide" players in the playoffs are coaches that are at a disadvantage. Jim Rutherford would be wise to give his "chef" the best ingredients to work with.

Nick Spaling does not fall into the same category as Craig Adams and Zach Sill. He has actually turned his offensive zone starts into possession. He works hard and doesn't make terrible errors, but he doesn't really do or create much either. Ideally he should stay in a 4th line role. That is what he is. My criticism of him isn't that he can't play on the fourth line and do a good job, it circles back to my original point with acquiring him, why him? Why 2.2M? If he is going to continue to be put in advantageous positions on the ice he will need to chip in offensively more often to justify his price tag. Either that or Johnston needs to take away those offensive zone starts and give them to players who will use them more efficiently.

Both Dan Bylsma and Mike Johnston have sheltered their bottom six forwards, but they have done so in different ways. Bylsma gave very low offensive zone starts against weak competition while Mike Johnston is giving those players the territorial advantages at the start of their shifts.

It is very early in the year. But I think this is worthy of monitoring moving forward.

Thanks for reading!

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