Penguins’ Special Teams Not Good Enough Entering 2022-23

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ special teams have been an area of concern since April. The penalty kill looked sluggish toward the end of the 2021-22 season and into the first round of the playoffs. The power play lacked any sense of urgency and often looked chaotic and unorganized. Special teams are what ultimately closed the door on the Penguins’ playoff run last year.

So far this preseason, the special teams have not looked very different. The first regular-season game is set for Oct. 13, against the Arizona Coyotes, and all eyes will be on the power play and penalty kill. 

Penguins Special Teams Cause for Concern?

On Sept. 27, the Penguins lost 6-2 to the Detroit Red Wings. Even though it was a preseason game, and the outcome did not matter, it would have been nice to see a better special teams performance. The Penguins had nine power play opportunities and failed to convert on all of them. They barely threatened to score and had only four high-danger scoring chances. 

What is even more surprising is that Pittsburgh deployed their number one unit of Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Sidney Crosby on the power play. This will likely stay the same during the season, so it would have been encouraging to see at least one goal. The penalty kill did not look much better, as the Red Wings were able to convert on both of their power plays.

Penguins’ Special Teams Lacking Direction 

Pittsburgh’s power play used to be a thing of beauty. When Patric Hornqvist was on the team, there was no question about where he would be during the power play or how it should look. When the Penguins had Phil Kessel, everyone knew his spot was on the left wall, and he did a great job controlling the tempo, which shaped how the power play would run. 

Patric Hornqvist Pittsburgh Penguins
Patric Hornqvist during his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It has been a while since the power play has had a specific identity. It is hard to say exactly what the Penguins are seeking to accomplish. There is no longer a 1-3-1 setup, nor does it get pucks or bodies to the net, nor is there a particular player who stands out or a specific spot to take shots. Letang is a fixture on the power play, with either Malkin or Crosby passing along the outside. Rust and Guentzel are always randomly somewhere in between the slot and the front of the net. 

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Another issue is the highs and lows. At the beginning of last season, the team had one of the best penalty kills in the league. The power play was also firing on all cylinders until the second half of the year when everything seemed to fall apart. 

Penguins Have Work to Do

Head coach Mike Sullivan knows that his special teams still have a way to go. Perhaps they are simply shaking off the rust during the preseason and will come into the regular season with a more clearly defined game plan. However, associate coach Todd Reirden does not have much time to develop that plan. The power play needs an identity and to establish what exactly they want to accomplish. Then they need to be able to remain consistent through the season. If they can do that, they will find success with special teams this year. 

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