Breaking Down Sidney Crosby's Early Struggles This Season

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 30, 2015

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby plays against the Nashville Predators in the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Penguins boast a dazzling array of firepower up front. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel headline a forward corps that on paper should be able to outscore any in the league. But the Penguins currently sit just 27th in goals per game in the NHL, and Crosby is stuck at just a single goal and five points on the year.

What’s wrong with the game’s best player?

Let’s start by looking at his shots, goals and assists rate to see if we can determine where the problem is:

Crosby's shots, goals and assists rates
Season5v5 S/605v5 G/605v5 A/60PP S/60PP G/60PP A/60
2011-128.21.33.313.416.2
2012-139.91.32.212.11.35.1
2013-148.00.91.611.81.64.6
2014-158.20.91.511.82.14.3
2015-168.901.211.11.81.8
war-on-ice.com

Shots aren’t an issue. Crosby didn’t get any shots his first two games of the year, but he’s made up for it since. He’s above his recent average as a five-on-five shooter and only a touch below it on the power play. The problem has been that none of his even-strength shots have gone in; looking at the last four seasons, he’d normally be averaging 1.1 goals/hour. That works out to three goals at even strength, as opposed to his current figure of zero.

So is this just dumb luck, or is Crosby taking lower percentage shots this year?

I went back over the tape and watched all 30 shots Crosby has taken this year, and I’m firmly in the “dumb luck” camp. Here’s a map of shot locations; it’s really hard to believe he’s had just one goal on the season:

Every shot Crosby has taken this season
Every shot Crosby has taken this seasonJonathan Willis
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Shot No. 1
Shot No. 1Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live

There are some five-star chances in there that were stopped. Shot No. 1 came on a two-on-one rush, and Crosby timed it to go just as the defenceman screened his release. Shot No. 4 was a one-time opportunity with plenty of net showing, as were shots No. 7, No. 11, No. 24 and No. 27. Shot No. 6 came on a partial break, and Crosby got all of it. Shot No. 14 was a hard wrist shot from close range. Shot 19 was a sneaky redirect from the low slot. Nine of those 30 opportunities were Grade A chances, and the majority of the rest were good opportunities.

If Crosby keeps playing like this, the goals aren’t going to be a problem.

Assists have been an issue, too, though Crosby picked up a pair on Thursday night against Buffalo to improve to four on the season. At even strength, he’s below his career average by a bit, but that really isn’t worth worrying about, as the Penguins' shooting percentage when he’s out there is just 4.9 percent. Even in his absolute worst season, Pittsburgh shot 8.5 percent when he was on the ice; in eight of the last 10 seasons, the number has been 10 percent or higher.

In other words, at even strength, whatever problems he’s having producing assists are almost certainly linemate problems rather than Crosby problems. At some point, his linemates will stop shooting blanks, and Crosby’s assist totals should easily match what he’s done in recent years, and in all likelihood will surpass his recent performances.

The power play is a bigger concern. The Penguins have the third-worst power play in the NHL—they were last until scoring against Buffalo on Thursday—and Crosby is an integral part of it.

Personnel clearly shouldn’t be an issue. Here’s what Crosby had as options moments before Pittsburgh scored against Buffalo:

Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live

That’s a crazy array of skill.

But Pittsburgh has generally boasted crazy skill in recent years, and they haven’t always been effective on the man advantage. Even last season, which started brilliantly, saw the team’s power-play numbers collapse down the stretch. The Pens scored 23 power-play goals in their first 20 games but only 26 in their final 62 contests.

What happened? They stopped shooting.

Last season, in the middle of that hot run, I wrote a piece for Sportsnet on what was making Pittsburgh so effective, and the answer was basically that the team worked hard for ugly goals:

A lot of times, we picture the power play as a unit that gains the zone, finds its formation, and then passes the puck until the perfect shot emerges, but that isn’t really how the Penguins operate. Just five of the team’s 22 goals came off relatively clean shots. The other 17 (77.3 percent) were scored by shooting and going to the net, either by way of rebound, redirect, or just standing there and blocking the goalie’s vision while the puck goes whistling by.

That doesn’t seem to be happening these days. In a 5-on-3 power play that lasted a whopping 1:45 against the Capitals on Wednesday, Pittsburgh managed to put just two shots on net. Some of the problem was shooting wide, but much of it was sequences like this:

  • 1:45 - Crosby wins the draw cleanly to Malkin to start the power play
  • 1:42 – Malkin handles the puck a bit before passing to Letang
  • 1:40 – Letang handles the puck a bit before passing to Crosby
  • 1:36 – Crosby looks for a low play, doesn’t find it, passes back to Letang
  • 1:35 – Letang quickly moves the puck to Kessel
  • 1:34 – Kessel doesn’t shoot but quickly moves the puck to Malkin, who is prepping a one-timer; Malkin takes it on the skate
  • 1:33 – Malkin kicks it to his stick and passes to Letang
  • 1:32 – Letang passes it back to Malkin
  • 1:30 – Malkin passes it down to Crosby
  • 1:28 – Crosby tries a cross-ice pass, which misses
  • 1:26 – Malkin retrieves the puck on the far boards
  • 1:23 – Malkin passes back across to Crosby, who one-times the puck
  • 1:20 – Washington clears

No, Letang isn't going to shoot. There are 13 more seconds of passing and perimeter play to go yet.
No, Letang isn't going to shoot. There are 13 more seconds of passing and perimeter play to go yet.Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live

It took 10 passes and more than 20 seconds of ice time to generate a shot in a five-on-three situation while the Capitals passively sat in their triangle in front of the net. The power play was static, shot-averse and slow to make decisions.

Seconds after the 5-on-3 ended, Pittsburgh got another two-minute power play, a five-on-four. The top unit stayed out and had long stretches of possession in the offensive zone, spending nearly the entire first minute there. It didn’t record a shot in that span, settling instead for passing around the periphery.

Compare that to the goal Pittsburgh scored against the Sabres on Friday, the first non-Crosby 5-on-4 goal of the year for the team:

That’s what the Penguins power play needs to do: take the shot and crash the net. That’s what it did when it had success last year. Crosby, as we’ve seen, has been shooting. It’s time for his teammates to start doing the same. If they do, Crosby’s assist totals will trend up again. If they don’t, it’s likely to be a long year for Crosby and the team, and a short one for head coach Mike Johnston.

Statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.comstats.hockeyanalysis.com,naturalstattrick.com and NHL.com

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.