Dave Lozo's Bag Skate: Crosby, Malkin and the Importance of Separating Them

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterDecember 9, 2014

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14: Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skate against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on November 14, 2014 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been besieged by injuries, and it's wreaking havoc with a usually dominant team.

Stop me if you've heard this before.

Actually, don't stop me, otherwise this story ends much sooner than intended.

An avalanche of ailments have left the Penguins icing what is essentially an above-average beer league team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. For Monday's 4-3 overtime loss to the Rangers, the Penguins were without Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist, Olli Maatta and Beau Bennett.

That's four top-six forwards and two top-four defensemen.

Dupuis is done for the season, and Hornqvist has a presumed concussion, which means his timetable could be lengthy. Kunitz's fractured foot will keep him out at least a couple weeks. Bennett is also out for weeks with a lower-body injury, while Letang (groin) should be back soon. Maatta's injury is unknown but unrelated to his cancer scare earlier this season, according to coach Mike Johnston.

The Penguins were so decimated Monday that the cap hits of Malkin and Crosby (18.2 million) were more than the combined cap hits ($11.5 million) of the other 10 forwards in the lineup. The cap hits for the six defensemen dressed was around $15.6 million.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

On the one hand, an NHL team took the ice with about $45 million in payroll, a sign that things are looking moderately bleak now and the near future. 

On the other hand, that team rallied from a 3-1 third-period deficit to snag a point from certain regulation defeat in a way that should provide optimism in the distant future.

And it's how they did it, more than the fact they actually did it, that shows the Penguins may have learned from past mistakes when it comes to line deployment.

"You can't give up and you have to work, especially when you're missing a lot of guys," Crosby said Monday night. "You have to make up for that with your work ethic and I thought everybody worked hard tonight and left it all out there."

That's pretty standard captain-speak in a situation like this, but there's something to be said for how the Penguins engineered their comeback against the Rangers. 

In years past, you can set your clock by the time it would take former coach Dan Bylsma to load one line with Crosby and Malkin when the Penguins were trailing in the third period. Yet Johnston chose to keep Crosby and Malkin on separate lines throughout the third period against the Rangers, and it resulted in Malkin's line and Crosby's line scoring on successive shifts in the final five minutes.

"It seemed like when they went out in the third period, both lines were creating every other shift," Johnston said. "We're trying to keep some balance there. With the Rangers having the last match, they could really try to shut down one line. They had to worry about two. As a result, both of them chipped in."

Johnston appears to understand what Bylsma chose to ignore at crunch time throughout much of his tenure in Pittsburgh—keeping the two best players in the world on separate lines creates matchup nightmares for most teams, and, even in the face of all these injuries, Johnston is preaching balance, the absence of which was one of the biggest reasons for the Penguins' playoff shortcomings in recent years.

The Penguins will eventually get some of their missing forwards back, so the contrast between lines won't be this stark all season, but a look at how Johnston deployed his lines in this one game should give the team's fans confidence about what the coach will be thinking when the postseason begins.

Via Natural Stat Trick, here are the on-ice Corsis for the Penguins forwards Monday.

Penguins forwards Corsi numbers vs. Rangers
PlayerIce timeCFCACF%
Nick Spaling14:1313765.0
Sidney Crosby17:1317965.4
Steve Downie16:0917868.0
First line totals47:35472466.2
Evgeni Malkin20:54211656.8
Brandon Sutter19:00221461.1
Blake Comeau19:32211361.8
Second line totals59:26644359.8
Rob Klinkhammer9:106746.2
Marcel Goc9:4111568.8
Jayson Megna10:2741028.6
Third line totals29:18212248.9
Zach Sill7:439564.3
Andrew Ebbett7:082722.2
Craig Adams5:288188.9
Fourth line totals20:19191359.4
NaturalStatTrick.com

The bottom two lines mixed and matched a bit, but the top two lines pretty much stuck together throughout regulation. They were also used heavily in the third period with the Penguins trailing and were a big reason they outshot the Rangers 13-4 and tied the game—11 of those 13 shots were generated with either Crosby or Malkin on the ice, separately.

As you can see by the usage, it's not "balance" in the strictest definition, but Johnston stuck with the plan for a balanced attack.

And a glimpse of the WOWYs for Crosby and Malkin show why Johnston was so dedicated to the plan, even with his team desperate for a goal.

Simply put, Crosby and Malkin make almost all of their linemates better, although Dupuis seems to be better when away from Malkin for some reason. It's one of those anomalies historians will discuss centuries later, like the ratings for Tosh.0 or Notre Dame's national television contract for football.

Crosby's linemates Monday were Steve Downie and Nick Spaling, two players added this summer to ideally operate as fourth-liners. Malkin played on the wing of Brandon Sutter, normally a third-line center when the team is healthy, and across from right wing Blake Comeau, who has been waived more than the right to an attorney on Law & Order episodes.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 15:  Sidney Crosby #87 celebrates with Steve Downie #23 of the Pittsburgh Penguins after a 3-2 shootout win over the New York Rangers at Consol Energy Center on November 15, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Sh
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

OK, so Comeau has only been waived once in his career. But this is his fourth team in three years, and that's a good Law & Order reference.

The Corsi splits for Crosby's linemates actually reflect somewhat poorly on Crosby, as Downie (41.3/44.0) and Spaling (48.4/50.5) are slightly better when away from the game's best player. However, it should be noted that Downie has nearly 10 times as many five-on-five minutes away from Crosby than with him, while Spaling has nearly three times as many five-on-five minutes away from Crosby.

It stands to reason that Downie and Spaling would see improvements with more regular time with Crosby, and it stands to reason Johnston has stood to reason this when setting his lines in a reasonable fashion.

It's better for Sutter (56.4/42.1) and Comeau (51.3/48.8), who reap the benefits of existing on a line with Malkin.

Johnston, and wisely so, has come to the conclusion that Crosby and Malkin can lug around lesser players and elevate them to elite status in some cases (looking at you, Canadian Olympian Chris Kunitz). Putting Crosby and Malkin together creates this Voltron-type machine, but it's not worth it at the expense of his other three lines.

Crosby and Malkin still operate on the same power-play unit and take plenty of shifts together at 4-on-4, but Johnston is averse to using them all that often at 5-on-5.

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 06:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his goal with Sidney Crosby #87 during the first period against the Ottawa Senators at Consol Energy Center on December 6, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Through 27 games this season, Crosby and Malkin have 21:12 of 5-on-5 time together.

Last season, with Bylsma in charge, Crosby and Malkin played 96:44 of 5-on-5 time together.

It's a slight difference, as Crosby and Malkin are on pace for about 64 minutes of 5-on-5 time together this season. But those overall numbers coupled with their third-period usage Monday seem to show Johnston understands the only way the Penguins are winning a Stanley Cup is with forward depth at all costs, and that means Crosby and Malkin on different lines except only in the most dire of circumstances.

If Johnston is willing to keep Crosby and Malkin apart down a goal with a depleted lineup in a regular-season game, maybe he's willing to do it with a better lineup down a goal in a playoff game.

Maybe this is reading too much into one game and one 20-minute segment of a game that ended in a loss for the Penguins. But maybe it's a sign Johnston has the right idea when it comes using his superstars.

Quote of the Week: Jon Cooper vs. Darryl Sutter

Lightning coach Jon Cooper and Kings coach Darryl Sutter are the two most quotable coaches in the NHL. Each week, we will let you decide who had the best quote.

The Lightning laid a bit of an egg last week in a 3-0 home loss to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets. Cooper was OK with the performance but not with the notion his team should beat a team near the bottom of the standings. But even angry Cooper is still funny. Here's what he said:

“Standings don’t mean S with a T."

I think we all know what the "S" means, but with a "T?" What does the "T" mean? Is it the final letter in the "S" word? Or a separate word? Either way, if you're not saying something "don't mean 'S' with a 'T'" from now on, you're missing out.

What about coach Sutter? What dry, partially annoyed statement did he deliver to the media this week?

Actually, let's enjoy Sutter letting his guard down talking about Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau, via LA Kings Insider.

I knew him business-wise and had meetings and all that, but as a boy growing up, we got two channels—channel three and channel five—and obviously it was Toronto-Montreal, and Jean Beliveau was a classy player. Even when I was a boy, I remember him so well, just how elegant he was on the ice at everything. He was a great player and he won a lot of championships and he was a great captain.

Board of Governors

It's rare when the big news out of a board of governors isn't the salary-cap projection for the following season, but with the news that the NHL was looking into season-ticket projections for a potential Las Vegas franchise, it got pushed to the side.

But a cap projection of $73 million for 2015-16 is the bigger news in the immediate future for a few NHL teams.

The Philadelphia Flyers have around $62 million committed to 17 players (retired/not retired NHL Player Safety employee Chris Pronger excluded), which gives the Flyers minimal breathing room to improve a team that looks destined to miss the playoffs this season. The Flyers have zero necessary UFAs or RFAs to re-sign, unless you consider RFA Michael Del Zotto necessary.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

General manager Ron Hextall appears to have no choice but to sell and sell hard at this year's deadline and maybe again over the summer.

The problem then becomes: Which big-money players are actually sought after by other NHL teams?

Vincent Lecavalier has three years at $4.5 million per season left on a deal, a steep price for a 34-year-old healthy scratch that will only decline further. Mark Streit has a $5.25 million cap hit for the next two years but might be the Flyers' top defenseman. Would anyone take Andrew MacDonald at $5 million a season through 2019-20?

It's impossible to dump salary if no one is willing to take that salary.

Hextall has been painted into a corner by his predecessor, Paul Holmgren, and will have to great creative in order to make the Flyers a better team. 

KHL Thing of the Week

There is some quality hockey that is played overseas that we rarely hear about in North America. This section will highlight that or something else from our friends playing hockey in the KHL.

James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail sent out some interesting tweets last week about the financial situation in Russia as it pertains to the KHL.

The biggest draw for players, and not just elite ones like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Radulov, is money. It's especially true for players that are deciding between two-way deals and KHL deals. That 35 percent drop could mean players on expiring KHL contracts being more open to NHL opportunities next season.

What does that 35 percent mean for Kovalchuk? It's hard to say.

There is no CapGeek for the KHL, but reports had Kovalchuk signing a four-year, $60 million deal with SKA St. Petersburg in July 2013 after he "retired" from the Devils. Assuming Kovalchuk's contract is unaffected this season, that means he has two years and $30 million left on his deal.

Subtract 35 percent, and Kovalchuk will earn "only" $19.5 million of tax-free money. That would put the value of his four-year deal at around $49.5 million.

If Kovalchuk had stayed with the Devils, he would have earned $46 million during that same four-year period. That NHL money is not tax-free, so he's earning more in the KHL, but nowhere near as much as he originally believed.

It remains to be seen what happens with the ruble in the coming years, but if the money disappears in the KHL, perhaps players like Kovalchuk and Radulov will reappear in the NHL.

Who Is Connor McDavid-ing This Week?

The tank battle for Connor McDavid will be quite the scene this season as teams stumble over each other to finish last in the standings, thus guaranteeing either McDavid or future American hero Jack Eichel.

Here's how it's looking entering Tuesday (welcome back, Buffalo Sabres!):

ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 1:  Ladislav Smid #5 and Devan Dubnyk #40 of the Edmonton Oilers react to giving up a goal against the St. Louis Blues at the Scottrade Center on March 1, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

30. Edmonton Oilers (7-15-5, 19 pts)

The NHL's longest losing streak ended in sad fashion Sunday, as the Oilers beat the Sharks, 2-1, for their first win in 11 games. It's not that the Oilers weren't doing all they could to extend the streak to 12—they mustered only 24 shots on net against a weary Sharks team that played the night before—but luck wasn't to be on their side on this night.

David Perron's winning goal was the result of a shot attempt that was traveling a good 200 feet wide of the net. But it ricocheted off the skate of a Sharks defenseman and into the net. A tough break for sure, but with three games upcoming against the Sharks and Ducks (twice), the Oilers should get right back into the tank.

29. Carolina Hurricanes (8-16-3, 19 pts)

When you play well and lose, maybe it's time to stop all that "trying" you hear about in sports movies and just let the feeling of giving up wash over you. The Hurricanes have outshot opponents in six of seven games yet found a way to lose five times. Is that an impressive display of heart and character, or is it luck that will eventually run out?

The Hurricanes are playing with fire of late, looking good and playing well. Sure, they are still finding ways to lose now, but if they are not careful, some of these efforts will translate into wins.

28. Buffalo Sabres (9-16-2, 20 pts)

After hitting a season-long slump that saw the Sabres win six of seven, they've rediscovered the magic in consecutive losses to the Lightning (5-0) and Panthers (3-2). It was probably only a matter of time before the Sabres hit a lull and won some games, but luckily for them, they're incredibly flawed start to the season has them right in the mix for the top pick.

The Sabres have winnable home games upcoming against the Flames, Senators, Avalanche and Panthers, so hopefully they'll stop finding ways to win before it's too late.

Goal of the Week

Remain calm, and enjoy this Richard Panik goal.

It's one thing to see a goalie deked out of his net on a breakaway, but it's another to see a goalie lose his net on a virtual stand-still deke in the slot. Panik loses the puck at the start of the play, but he showed no panic once he got the puck back.

Get it? Panik? Panic? That's writing. 

Questions and Answers

Got a question? Tweet me @davelozo or email me at dave111177@gmail.com, but please don't call before 9 a.m. I will answer any of your questions about hockey or whatever if it's a good question.

I believe this is in reference to Grumpy Cat, who is wealthier than anyone reading this dumb article on the Internet.  One comment on that: All cats are grumpy, miserable animals, so I don't see what's so special about this cat or any cat for that matter. Buy a dog. Dogs are great.

The NHL player most likely to do the same? That's tough. He'd have to be a bit of a weirdo (that's a good thing) and have some personality and a creative mind. One man's grumpy cat is another man's get that stupid cat away from me. So who would it be?

I will say David Backes of the St. Louis Blues. He's funny, has a sharp wit and has a charity that's all about rescuing dogs (please ignore the shameful photo of him on his site with two cats) and other animals. Based on his being around animals more than any player, he is most likely to find a meme waiting to happen, make millions off it and reinvest it in the charity. So good for him. 

It's bizarre. Part of it is due to all the Rangers injuries and inexperience up front, but man, he plays a lot for a guy who isn't very good. He is the Rangers' worst possession forward, and he's posting those numbers playing relaxed fourth-line minutes. The Rangers thrived because of their depth last season, and they just don't have as much of it this season.

Maybe when the Rangers are healthy, Alain Vigneault will send Glass to the bench. But the three-year contract Glass signed this offseason says otherwise. 

Of course they need him. He's a 30-goal scorer. Teams don't trade 30-goal guys for future assets in the middle of the season because of a few good weeks without him. Maybe next summer, with the cap not rising all that much, the Blackhawks consider moving him. But not now, that's for sure.

Next question!

Let's agree the Flyers are bad. Let's also agree that sometimes bad teams make the playoffs. How would they accomplish that this season?

The Flyers are nine points out of a playoff spot with 56 games to play. You can look at this glass half-full (they need to make up nine points over 56 games!) or glass half-empty (they are on pace to miss the playoffs by about 27 points!). The latter is the one you should focus on.

Let's consider the teams ahead of the Flyers that are outside the playoffs and objectively decide if the Flyers are better than them.

New Jersey. It's debatable. Ottawa. Maybe. The Rangers. The head-to-head says no. Florida. Once you get past the fact we're talking about the Panthers, you realize no, the Flyers are not better than the Panthers.

Now, find the weak link among teams in playoff spots. Who is the wounded, slow-running gazelle in that group? Toronto? Washington?

Can you really make a case that the Flyers can pass all those teams over the final two-thirds of the season? If so, you should making a case for one of the people involved in the story being told on the podcast Serial.

Oh man, I really don't know. I binge-listened to Serial over the weekend and I am absolutely addicted. I am also absolutely unable to come to a concrete opinion about 99 percent of what I've heard.

I went from, "Adnan definitely did it because he is way too chill and laid back and not angry at all about Jay theoretically using a blatant lie to send him to prison for life, so he must have done it" to "Maybe this is Adnan's coping mechanism to avoid letting anger consume him, and besides, every stoner I've ever known is unaggressive and exactly like Adnan so no way he did it."

But maybe he did it.

The three things from Serial I feel relatively confident about right now:

  1. Jay is a blatant liar, and I'd like to know why he's lying. I don't know anything about murder or burying a body, but it seems odd that Adnan was giving Jay, his weed dealer, murder play-by-play before doing it, then enlisting him to dig a super-shallow, easily-discoverable grave.
  2. The streaker/public urinator who finds Hae's body in the woods was up to something at the time, but what?
  3. Don, Hae's new boyfriend, sure was dismissed as a suspect early in the investigation.

This story leaves me wildly confused and unsure of myself. Serial is like the Vancouver Canucks of podcasts.

I have no idea what the entry-level writing environment is like today. I don't know if there are tons of paid gigs or if it's all internship-type opportunities where you are. You should do what you can there, whether it's online or in one of those old-fashioned newspaper things I've heard about. Take whatever you can get.

But the one thing you should be doing no matter what is writing.

Write every day. Write in different styles. Write in different voices. Figure out what works for you. If there's somebody out there whose work you like, emulate them. Don't steal from them or copy them, but emulate them. From there, maybe you find an offshoot of that style that works for you. 

There are all kinds of skills that can help you write about hockey, but writing is like any other skill that requires thousands of hours of practice. Just because someone isn't paying you to do it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it on your own. That's always a good place to start.

Going by her IMDb page, she left hockey in 1996 and took a six-year hiatus. She resurfaced in 2002 under the name Hailey as a witness to an alien crime while living with David Cross and his mom in a small New York apartment. She changed identities twice more over the next year, going by "Patty" and "Hannah Allen" before disappearing for another four years.

She was last seen in 2007 working as a prostitute. Hopefully she's out there somewhere happy, denying triple dekes whenever she can.

All statistics via NHL.com unless otherwise noted.

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

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