Like so many of the top teams in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins got off to a terrible start, losing their first three games, which included being shutout by Antti Niemi. Since then, the Pens have bounced back, winning 11 of their last 15 games. But their star player Sidney Crosby is still struggling.
Hailed by most as the best hockey player in the world, “Sid the Kid” only has two goals and seven assists after the first 18 games. But why? On paper, his new linesmen have improved from last year’s roster.
The big addition to the roster was Phil Kessel, former star of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He accompanied Crosby on line one for the first set of games, but due to a lack of production, from both players, he was put down to second.
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Crosby has had his line rotated a lot during this still young campaign and is struggling to get back to his standard world beater play. Last season he kicked off the first 17 games with eight goals and 18 assists. So what’s happened between then and now?
The All Important Powerplay
A major part of Sidney Crosby’s early season last campaign was his powerplay points. Of his 26 points, in the first 17 games, 13 of them were scored on the powerplay. This accounted for 50% of Crosby’s production.
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This season powerplay points still account for a huge share of his overall points, it’s just that there are a lot less of them. Crosby has two assists and two goals on the PP this year, accounting for 44.4% of his overall, showing that the powerplay is still vital to his scoring.
In 2014-15, the Pittsburgh powerplay that hosted half of Crosby’s early goals mainly lined up as: Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby. On the PP centred around this line Crosby scored four goals, passed the primary assist on four occasions and was the secondary for his other five PP assists.
For the 2015-16 campaign, sophomore head coach Mike Johnson has mixed up his previously pro-Crosby powerplay. Instead of keeping in Patrick Hornqvist, and keeping Crosby near the net, he’s replaced Hornqvist with Kessel and move Crosby to point.
This has resulted in Sidney’s points production cutting down to less than a third of his from a year before.
Has Phil Kessel Caused Crosby’s Struggles?
As previously stated, Kessel and Crosby did not work well on a line together, and they seem to be failing to connect on the powerplay as well, sure they’ve traded an assist each on the power play but this isn’t enough for players of their calibre.
But it’s not just Kessel’s involvement during Crosby’s ice time that has caused a decline. Coach Johnson has also shuffled around the other players that Crosby finds production alongside.
The first 17 games of the last campaign saw Sidney Crosby consistently line up alongside Chris Kunitz and Patrick Hornqvist. For all 17 “the Kid” was accompanied by Kunitz and new addition Hornqvist joined him on 14 occasions.
The Power of Pat and Chris
Crosby has only recently had Hornqvist return to his line but has barely spent any even strength time with Kunitz; instead Pascal Dupuis has often accompanied Sidney since Kessel was removed from the equation.
Both of Crosby’s 15-16 goals have come on the powerplay, with assists from Kessel, Malkin and two from Letang. In the season prior to this, seven of number 87’s eight goals, in the first 17 games, came from six different sources. One was scored unassisted.
Dupuis and Letang each got an assist on a Crosby goal; Maatta assisted him twice; both Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin supplied “the kid” thrice (all three of Geno’s assists came on the powerplay), and Patrick Hornqvist set him up four times.
Besides from the unassisted score, either Hornqvist or Kunitz had a hand in each of Crosby’s goals, but never on the same one oddly enough. This amounts to them assisting 87.5% of Sidney’s early season goals of 2014-15.
Crosby set up six of his teammates in the first 17 games of last season. Of the 18 assists: one went to Robert Bortuzzo; two went Dupuis with another double going to Letang; he had an assist on four of Kunitz’s and Malkin’s goals (but all four of the assists to Malkin were on the powerplay) and; five of Hornqvist’s goals were assisted by Sid.
50% of Crosby’s assists went Kunitz and Hornqvist in the first 17 games of last season. This season he hasn’t been able to assist to Kunitz once, set up Kessel, Hornqvist and Dupuis twice and Geno once.
How to Cure Sid the Kid
In recent matches, Hornqvist has been returned to the Crosby line. They’re joined on the line by Pascal Dupuis. Whilst the team is still performing well, and picking up wins, Crosby is still struggling to produce points, even now that he’s been reunited with Hornqvist.
Chris Kunitz, however, has been held to being a third liner this season which is a huge downgrade given how well he’s performed alongside Crosby in the past. Though he’s 36-years-old he’s still a quality player, so why not try returning him to Crosby’s line?
With so many of Sidney’s points coming on the powerplay, it makes sense to put him in his preferred position. Kessel needs to be moved so that Crosby can set up closer to the net, instead of on point.
If anything, the Penguins should remove Kessel from the first powerplay line and return Hornqvist to the setup. It doesn’t make sense to try and alter such a well functioning team, even if Kessel is supposedly a better player.
When a player who averages 1.3 points a game is producing just 0.5 points a game then there’s still some shuffling to be done. If Crosby was returned to an ideal scoring line then it would be a huge boost for the Penguins.
Simply switching Kunitz for Dupuis on the even strength line, and possibly Hornqvist for Kessel on the powerplay, would do wonders for Crosby. It’s certainly worth trying given the points they’re losing with Crosby’s current play.