Penguins seeking more from bottom-six forwards
They call their scoring opportunities “greasy,” “dirty” and “garbage” with pride, so the Penguins' third- and fourth-line forwards welcome the insinuation they play ugly hockey.
Yet they still are sensitive to scoring droughts, such as the one they've encountered during the past few weeks.
The infusion of wingers Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, who swapped places with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton-bound Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson on Thursday, likely raises the grit ratio of the Penguins' bottom-six forwards.
Whether it improved the offensive contributions of the unheralded lines became a key question as the Penguins prepared to meet Montreal on Saturday night at Bell Centre.
“It's not our main priority, but to chip in offensively, that's something you've got to do on the third and fourth line,” winger Kevin Porter said. “We're not going to score 15, 20 goals, but if you chip in six to eight a season, hopefully 10, that's a good season.”
Scoring output and opportunities for stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have changed for the better since Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as Penguins coach on Dec. 12.
But Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, Sergei Plotnikov and Nick Bonino — the Penguins' regulars on the third and fourth lines since the start of the season — aren't flourishing in the same way as their celebrated cohorts during five-on-five play.
“Those guys are contributing and probably have played the most consistently of any of our players,” general manager Jim Rutherford said of the bottom-six forwards the day he announced the coaching change.
Fehr scored the most recent even-strength goal among bottom-six forwards Dec. 26 at Minnesota, but he described it as a “once-in-a-season-type play” because the Wild incorrectly assumed icing had been called.
Before that came a goal from Fehr on Dec. 11 against Los Angeles during four-on-four action. And before that was a tally from Cullen, who tipped in an Olli Maatta shot from the point against Colorado on Dec. 9.
For Plotnikov, goals remain elusive, no matter the coach. But opponents now attempt 49.7 percent of the five-on-five shots while he's on the ice, whereas with Johnston in charge the Penguins took 55.2 percent of the shot attempts when Plotnikov skated, according to war-on-ice.com.
A likely explanation for the shift in Plotnikov's possession metrics: More than 50 percent of his five-on-five faceoff starts under Johnston came in the opponent's end, according to war-on-ice.com, while just have 34.5 occurred in the Penguins offensive end with Sullivan in charge.
Fehr's five-on-five offensive zone starts also dropped, from 38.6 percent under Johnston to 33 percent.
And Cullen's points-per-60 minutes rate fell from 0.7 to 0.5, according to war-on-ice. Under Sullivan's watch, the Penguins have attempted fewer shots and allowed more during Cullen's time on the ice.
Only Bonino, who briefly centered a third line with Phil Kessel and also spent time on the Penguins' second line in Sidney Crosby's absence, received a marked boost in offensive numbers under Sullivan.
In Kuhnhackl (6-foot-2, 196 pounds) and Rust (5-11, 192), the Penguins have more prototypical bottom-six wingers than Sheary (5-9, 175) and Wilson (5-11, 183).
Sheary and Wilson put up superior goal and assist numbers with the Baby Pens, and Sullivan praised the energy they brought to the Penguins, but Thursday's personnel swap signaled the team's desire for different playing styles.
“Obviously the way myself and even Tom plays, we're going to play a little more of a simple game, a straight-line game,” Rust said. “We need to be able to take pucks to the net, cause some of those dirty-area scoring chances and maybe bang a few of those home.”
What Kuhnhackl and Rust provide in the defensive end became a point of emphasis for Sullivan as he spoke after Saturday's morning skate.
“He's a terrific shot blocker,” Sullivan said of Kuhnhackl. “He's a courageous guy and has a great ability to get in front of shots and deny them from getting to our net, so I think those guys have the ability to help a line at both ends of the rink, no matter which line they play on.”