Six games into the 2017-18 regular season, the Penguins continue to struggle on the face-off dot. Although they average the fifth highest number of face-offs per game in the league, they rank just 24th in face-off wins.
The Penguins are seeing just under 68 face-offs per game, and are losing well over half of them. How significant is this issue to their game?
A Lingering Issue
The Penguins have been struggling with face-offs for some time now. They finished the 2016-17 regular season as one of the worst face-off teams, only winning 47.6% of their draws and ranking 28th in the league. Their current success rate has dropped to just 46.8% over the first six games of the season.
Admittedly, this is a smaller sample size, but it highlights two major changes that the Penguins have to grapple with on the face-off dot this season. One is the stricter enforcement of the NHL’s face-off rules; the other is the Penguins’ issues with depth down the center of their lineup in the absence of centers Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino.
In his time in Pittsburgh, Cullen was always the best face-off man on the team. Now that duty falls to Sidney Crosby, who is taking a huge majority of the face-offs so far on the season and averaging a 51.8% success rate. He and Carter Rowney are the only regular centers that have been winning a majority of their face-offs. Third-line center Greg McKegg is winning just under half at 49.4%, while Evgeni Malkin’s slow start to his season has extended to his face-offs to give him a dismal success rate of 35.9%.
With Cullen on the team, Malkin’s relatively weak face-off win percentage (he ended the 2016-17 season at 43.1%) could fly under the radar. Cullen took more draws on the season than Malkin, despite the fact that he saw far less ice time on the fourth line than Malkin did on the second. But this season, with Cullen lost to the Minnesota Wild, Malkin has had to take a higher percentage of the team’s face-offs. And it hasn’t been pretty.
More Penalties, More Face-Offs
The Penguins, like many others in the league, have been struggling to adjust to the newly enforced slashing rules. In their Saturday game against the Florida Panthers, they took six penalties, three of which were slashing calls; one of those penalties resulted in a goal against when Carl Hagelin was the player that had to go to the box.
Coach Mike Sullivan said after the game on Saturday that stick penalties were going to be an area the Penguins would focus on cleaning up. It’s even more important for them to improve if the Penguins continue to struggle with face-offs. A face-off win during a penalty kill is crucial to clearing the zone and winding down precious seconds of the other team’s man advantage.
Face-offs are an area of play where the Penguins miss Cullen keenly (he averaged a 51.2% success rate last season, by far the highest of any regular face-off man on the team.) They’re going to need to improve in this aspect as they struggle to keep down their penalty minutes and improve their puck possession.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.