It is still a problem.
There were a lot of sources of frustration for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2022-23 NHL season, but one of the biggest had to be an underachieving power play unit that not only did not score enough, but also seemed to steal momentum away from the team in big moments.
There was some expectation that might change for the 2023-24 season thanks to the offseason addition of defenseman Erik Karlsson, one of the best power play quarterbacks of the modern era. Or any era.
So far through the first two months of the season, not much has changed with this unit. Even with the addition of Karlsson.
As of Tuesday the Penguins are 25th in the league on the power play, converting on just 15.2 percent of their chances. Even worse, just like the power play of a season ago this unit seems to be robbing the team of momentum in big moments. They are often times so bad and dysfunctional with the man advantage that it tends to feed life into their opponents and bring them to a different level.
It is incredibly frustrating not only because it limits the Penguins' chances of winning on most nights (and often contributes to losses), but also because of how much talent that unit has. There is really no excuse for a power play with multiple Hall of Famers (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Karlsson) and another consistent All-Star (Jake Guentzel) to be this bad. It is also frustrating because all of their underlying metrics in shot rate and scoring chance rate are so high.
It does not always match the eye-test, but they do statically generate chances.
Just not goals.
The first thing that stands out to me is the simple fact that unit is desperately missing a Patric Hornqvist or Chris Kunitz type player to rattle cages in front of the net and score garbage goals. Guentzel typically plays that net-front role, and while he will get the occasional tip-in or deflection goal (and he is good at that) he is not really causing the type of chaos you want to see in front. I think this also applies to the Penguins 5-on-5 play and why their actual goals fall so short of their expected goal numbers. They have talented players. They get themselves into good shooting positions. But the goalies typically gets an unobstructed look at the shots. Most NHL goalies will stop what they can see the overwhelming majority of the time.
Another thing I keep coming back to -- why not try to score more off the rush when the opportunity presents itself? There is nothing that says your power play has to score off a traditional set up and by passing the puck around the perimeter to set up one-timers. Especially when you A) sometimes struggle to get set up in the offensive zone and B) are desperately lacking the aforementioned net-front cage-rattler. If you have room and numbers on the rush ... Go for the goal right then and there.
I am also going to throw one more off-the-wall suggestion out here.
Why not try both Karlsson and Letang on the top unit together?
The Penguins have been giving Karlsson the bulk of the power play time and transitioned Letang into a significantly larger penalty killing role. And it has worked out especially well with the latter. But it has basically made Letang a non-factor on the power play, which is -- in my opinion -- wasting a big part of his value.
I know most teams do not play two defensemen on their power play, but most teams do not have two defensemen as talented, skilled and productive as Letang and Karlsson.
I feel like the fourth forward on that unit (whether it has been Rickard Rakell, Reilly Smith, or Bryan Rust) has been one of the weak links. So why not go away from them and put Letang back out there as well? Put him in the old Phil Kessel position and let him distribute the puck from there.
Whatever they try, it is pretty obvious something needs to change here. It has been more than a year of this unit looking -- and producing -- exactly the same, and it is not anywhere near good enough.
It cost them games and a playoff spot a year ago.
If something does not change this season it will have a very similar result.