Dear Santa: Penguins’ 2021 Christmas Wish List

What do you get someone who has everything? This question rings especially true for the Pittsburgh Penguins, currently the proud owners of a seven-game win streak that has catapulted Mike Sullivan’s troops into the Eastern Conference’s primary wild-card spot. At first glance, it seems as though the big man in red need not stress about fulfilling grand desires sourced from Sidney Crosby and company, but where’s the fun in settling for a few trinkets when you can ask for the whole world? Here are three wishes that have undoubtedly found their way onto the Penguins’ list this holiday season.

Evgeni Malkin Returning to Full Health

If the Penguins are to make one last inspired playoff run in the era defined by the dynamic duo of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they need the latter of the two franchise icons to return to something approaching full health. However, that’s easier said than done when the Russian pivot has missed 81 of Pittsburgh’s games since the start of the 2018-19 season, approximately a third of their total scheduled fixtures in that time.

Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Although it’s foolish to expect Malkin to immediately roar back to life upon his eminent return, he’s produced like the familiar league-destroying center when healthy. In between frequent trips to the injured reserve, the soft-spoken giant has amassed 102 points in 88 regular games since 2019-20. If he provides the Penguins with production remotely in the same neighbourhood as his prime years, the Metropolitan Division crown is there for the taking. Before you call me out for hovering outside the realm of reality, let me remind you that they don’t call it a wish list for nothing. 

Penguins Need Better Fortune in Shootout Decisions

Although this isn’t an article which discusses the many faults of the NHL’s infatuation with shootouts and the loser point, it bears reminding that deciding deadlocked match-ups with a glorified skills competition does little to reward the more deserving squad on any given night.

Apart from the New Jersey Devils (who are tied with Pittsburgh), no other team has suffered defeat in the shootout more often than the Penguins, frustrated owners of a paltry 1-4 record after overtime. Now, you might think that missing out on three points means little over the slog of a long season, but every point counts when it comes to solidifying a more favourable playoff opponent. For example, consider the Penguins’ fate if their shootout record is reversed, handing them an additional three points in the standings.

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Presently, the team is slated to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round as the group occupying the first wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference. Including the fictional victories, the Penguins are tied with the New York Rangers on points, but crest ahead on a stronger goal differential. As a result, they’ve gone from challenging the back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning Lightning, to a more manageable opponent in the Washington Capitals. Again, the difference may appear minuscule, but it could easily make the difference between another early postseason exit, and a final playoff escapade worthy of an era-defining group. No pressure Santa. 

A New and Improved Power Play For the Penguins

What do you get when you mix a Sidney Crosby, a Kris Letang, and a Jake Guentzel? Not an effective power play somehow, or at the very least, a very snake-bitten unit. The Penguins rank poorly in terms of overall power-play efficiency (15.3% – 29th in the NHL), their actual scoring rate (26th in goals per-60), but grade out very well in terms of chance generation (fourth in expected goals per-60). It seems as though this is a classic case of unsustainable percentages forcing the Penguins to ride the unpredictable wave of shooting regression to the mean, as it’s unlikely that their conversion rate fails to align with their level of creation in the long-term.

So, how does Santa fix this? The simple (and frustrating) answer is for the Penguins to wait, and trust in the basic principles of the law of averages, but it’s difficult when valuable points in the standings are at stake. The more difficult (but more satisfying) conclusion to this saga is that Pittsburgh’s management group trades for a reliable offensive sniper capable of capitalizing on the team’s clear ability to fashion scoring chances with the man-advantage. General manager Ron Hextall and team president Brian Burke are nothing if not a fearless pair of executive might.

Joe Pavelski: Pittsburgh’s power-play saviour?

Could a pair of options such as grizzled veteran Joe Pavelski (seventh in power-play goals since 2019-20) or Mike Hoffman (18th) be effective answers as the trade deadline approaches? Their sizeable cap-hits coupled with Pittsburgh’s high-wire salary cap tango makes any potential swap a headache to figure out logistically, but it could be a swaying factor in the season. Pavelski in particular has found a niche in finishing chances in tight, the perfect ointment for a power play struggling to convert when the opportunity presents itself.

Can Santa Deliver For the Penguins?

Santa’s got his work cut out for him, unfortunately. The most attainable of the points on the wish list is a reversion of Pittsburgh’s luck in the shootout, with the unpredictability of the NHL’s least popular sideshow an inaccurate indicator of a team’s true skill level. The health and production of one of the franchise’s iconic pillars is a much more uncertain commodity, with Malkin’s return to his rampaging days of old anything but a foregone conclusion after a lengthy recovery process. Further, a team boasting such creative offensive stars shouldn’t be dwelling in the league’s cellar for power play conversion, and I’d bet that they experience a rapid adjustment in finishing luck in due course.

After the recent news announcing that the NHL has withdrawn from the Olympics and an undetermined league postponement due to COVID concerns, a return to normalcy represents the greatest potential gift of all this Christmas season. Here’s to a quick, and safe, resumption of the 2021-22 NHL campaign.

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick. Data accurate as of December 21, 2021.

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