by John Toperzer
While it’s pretty much universally acknowledged the Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis line is one of the NHL’s most productive, the deployment of Pittsburgh’s no. 1 unit is throwing up some big red flags.
Crosby leads the league with 21 points, Kunitz is averaging a point per game and Dupuis has put up two goals and 10 points through 13 contests. The trio’s on-ice Corsi ratings equally impressive: Kunitz (20.37), Crosby (19.72) and Dupuis (14.48) all rank in the top 50.
The problem is each player is averaging greater than a minute more per game than in recent seasons. The long season extracts energy, especially in the spring when the stakes are high.
Kunitz is skating 19:06 TOI after totaling 18:18 TOI and 18:01 in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively. Dupuis averages 19:13 TOI. He saw 17:30 TOI and 16:55 TOI the previous two campaigns.
Keep in mind that Kunitz and Dupuis are both 34 and put everything they’ve got into every shift. That could wear on the veterans, leading to a fall off in performance or injury. Kunitz netted 20 goals in his first 35 games last spring, but scored only two times in the final 13 regular-season games.
Crosby has the Olympics on tap for February and then an extended postseason run (provided the stars align). He could max out at 113 games played; 82 NHL regular season games, seven Olympic games and 24 NHL playoff contests. That’s a lot of hockey, even before adding intercontinental travel and the international media demands that go with playing for Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Crosby is averaging 22:52 ice time through the Penguins’ first 13 games. According to the NHL Network, he’s in the midst of a 10-game streak during which he’s seen more than 22 minutes of ice time for the first time in his nine-year career.
In 2012-13, Crosby averaged 21 minutes and six seconds of action while in 2011-12 he saw less than 19 minutes of ice (18:28).
Crosby’s in a different boat than his elderly linemates. At 27, he’s in the prime of his career. Concussions sidelined him for 113 of 212 games heading into 2013-14. Theoretically, he should be able to better handle the increased ice time.
Here are Crosby’s ice totals for the last three seasons.
Season, Total Ice Time, Even-Strength, Power-Play, Short-Handed
2011-12: 18:28 total TOI, 14:27 even-strength, 3:52 power-play, :07 short-handed
2012-13: 21:06 total TOI, 16:02 even-strength, 4:21 power-play, :41 short-handed
2013-14: 22:52 total TOI, 17:33 even-strength, 4:28 power-play, :50 short-handed
Crosby’s even-strength time has increased significantly. His PP and short-handed times have also gone up a bit, but both of those numbers have stayed relatively stable.
One area worthy of investigation that might help explain his bump in ice is faceoffs. Crosby taking a crucial draw in his own end and then racing off ice immediately thereafter might help explain things.
Upon reviewing his October shifts for Pittsburgh, Crosby totaled 17 shifts under 20 seconds duration. That’s little over one short shift per game. It doesn’t explain his increased ice and can be ruled out as a cause.
In short, Crosby is playing one minutes and 46 seconds more than he did last season and four minutes-plus than he did two years ago.
As a whole, the Penguins’ top unit has seen a fairly significant increase in time on ice. Will that come back to haunt the team come spring? Will Evgeni Malkin’s line take some pressure off when James Neal and Beau Bennett come back?
Time will tell, but the Pens are walking a fine line between getting the most out of their best players and pushing them too hard, too early in the season.