The Flames’ leaky defense and the Penguins’ shocking struggles to score have turned two expected playoff contenders into early season disappointments.
Welcome to the latest installment of While You Were Away. We’ll be tracking stories you may have missed and players who are trending up or down. We’ll fill you in on roster transactions, make a few predictions and generally keep you updated on all things NHL beyond your favorite team.
What to make of the Calgary Flames and the Pittsburgh Penguins? One of the more exciting teams to make the 2015 playoff field, the Flames entered this season with a defense corps bolstered by the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton, an arsenal of young scorers and two goalies who were striving to solidify themselves as full-time NHL netminders. The Penguins made a splash during the off-season by locking up Phil Kessel in a trade with Toronto to add to an already potent top six.
But things have mostly fallen apart for both teams this season and their inconsistencies were on display during a recent pair of games.
For the Flames, scoring isn’t necessarily a problem as it has been for many other teams, though their best offensive player, Johnny Gaudreau has gone cold with no goals in his past four games. Letting goals in is what has them sitting near the NHL’s basement at 28th in the standings with a record of 6-12-1.
Friday night’s 3–2 win over the formidable Washington Capitals looked promising. But in Sunday’s 4–1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks the Flames looked more like the team we’ve seen most often this season. Coach Bob Hartley called it “a step back.”
Calgary’s 3.74 goals-against per game average is the league’s worst, as is its goal differential of –1.37. It would be easy to blame the goaltending, as many people have. None of the three netminders the Flames have used—Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Orto—has a save percentage over .900.
But given how difficult it is to trade for a goalie who could turn the Flames’ season around the way Devan Dubnyk did for the Wild last year (Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov is said to be available, but he's been struggling this season), let’s examine the other glaring problem: Calgary's defensemen aren’t driving play the way many thought they would as the Flames sit with a 5-on-5 Corsi For of 47.7% (according to Hockey Analysis), which ranks fourth worst in the league.
The main culprits are Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman.Their numbers are glaring: Russell and Wideman have 5-on-5 Corsi For’s of 44.9% and 45.6% respectively. The big problem? These two see a lot of ice time as Russell (24:01) and Wideman (23:20) are second and fourth in ATOI among Flames defensemen, respectively. They’re seeing big minutes and neither turning these minutes into offensive chances for the Flames or preventing opposing teams for getting big chances.
But to captain Mark Giordano, the main issue is a lack of aggressive play. “Our DNA is being aggressive, jumping up in the play and playing good defense,” he told the Calgary Sun. “That was what made us so successful last year—every shift last year we were aggressive and on the puck and creating turnovers.”
Fortunately, the Flames are lucky to be only six points out of a playoff spot, so there is still time to get going.
Over in Pittsburgh, getting the offense going has been the problem. The Penguins mustered only one goal in two games this weekend. On Friday night, Patric Hornqvist scored late in the third period against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 2–1 loss. The following night they were shut out by the New Jersey Devils, 4–0.
One goal in two games? If you picked the Pens to rank below Kessel’s former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in goals per game on November 17 in the “NHL Surprises” pool, you are clairvoyant. The Pens have scored a measly 2.06 goals per game and you would think that given their five-on-five shooting percentage of 5.81%, they need to simply shoot the puck even more.
But shooting largely hasn’t been the issue. At 29.9 shots per 60 minutes, good for 12th in the league, they’re getting their chances. It’s their power play, one that so many expected would make quick work of opposing teams, that has been the biggest surprise. The Pens are shooting a paltry 8.97% with the man advantage, tied for fourth worst in the league.
It was unthinkable to suggest before the season, but it may be time to break up the PP combo of Kessel,Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin(who according to Left Wing Lock have been used together for more than half of the team’s total PP time) and give Nick Bonino, Daniel Sprong or Beau Bennett a crack on the unit’s top line.
Sound strange? Perhaps, but all three have better shooting percentages this season than Kessel, Crosby and Malkin. I’m not saying it’s something they have to stick with throughout the season but the Pens now sit fifth in the Metropolitan Division and they should be open to trying anything to break their goal-scoring drought.
How long can both the Flames and the Penguins sit and wait on their problems? If we’re picking teams in the “Who’s going to shake things up early in the season?” pool, these two would be my bet.