When exciting young rookie Tyler Toffoli was sent back to the AHL to help with the Monarchs' playoff push, it triggered much dismay in some quarters. Many were hoping to see Toffoli rejoin the top six, especially after Penner's abysmal game against the Sharks.
In terms of scoring, the case looks slam dunk. Penner has only 2 goals and 10 assists in 30 games. Toffoli has the same number of goals and 3 assists in a mere 8 games. So what gives? Why is Dustin Penner still on the second line?
A better explanation surfaces if you dig into numbers beyond the scoresheet. Toffoli's amazing knack for scoring will clearly make him a top six player soon, but he could also benefit from more development.
Here's how Toffoli and Penner stack up in terms of shots, chances, and overall competition.
The Kings' puck possession dominance played a big part in their Cup run last year. To get a rough estimate of time spent in the offensive zone, we look at total shot attempts at even strength (Corsi). Shot attempts are strongly correlated with scoring chances, as scoring chances are with goals.
We can look at these numbers to see how Toffoli's time on the second line impacted the performance of Carter and Richards. 50% is breaking even; above that, and your team is controlling more of the play than your opponents.
|With Toffoli||Without Toffoli|
Carter and Richards look much better without Toffoli. Interestingly enough, Toffoli's numbers also improve when separated from Carter. This may be because both need the puck a lot to shoot.
With Penner, the situation is reversed: the second line performs better with him on it.
|With Penner||Without Penner|
Our professional lightning rod/pancake aficionado appears to help the second line overall. Though he's more likely to post assists than goals lately--his mysteriously low shooting percentage continues to haunt us all--Penner is still able to use his big body to create time and space for his linemates when he's not producing. On this score, he appears to be a better complement for Carter and Richards.
What about quality scoring chances, though? Thanks to Robert's terrific work, we can answer this.
It should come as no surprise that a dynamic sniper like Toffoli has generated more chances per 60 minutes of ice time, but that comes at a price: he's also on for more chances against.
|SC For/60||SC Against/60||Scoring Chance %|
|Dustin Penner||14.2||11.6||54.9% (8th of 15)|
|Tyler Toffoli||18.3||21.2||46.3% (13th of 15)|
Penner, meanwhile, has been one of the most snakebitten players I've ever seen in a Kings uniform, but his ratio comes out ahead.
Finally, we come to defense. The Kings regularly have their top six go head-to-head with other great offensive players, so this is an important aspect to consider.
As we've seen, Toffoli didn't come out ahead in scoring chances at even strength. This was in spite of largely being kept away from tough competition and defensive zone faceoffs -- more so than every other forward in the top 9.
(*Graphic courtesy of Rob Vollman's great interactive player usage charts. Click to enlarge.)
Toffoli's positive plus/minus can't be used as evidence of his defensive play. He did benefit from a run of unusually good luck, though. His teammates shot over 12% when he was on the ice, while goalies saved over 95% of shots. In other words, his +3 was fueled by a spell of good fortune that couldn't last. The chances would have caught up with him in time, as they did in his final game against Phoenix (where he was a minus 2).
5v5 play is critical
Most of the game is played at even strength. The Kings became the top puck possession team in the league after the Carter trade last year, and have maintained that status this season. As they try to repeat, it's crucial that the second line be able to take on tough match-ups and win.
Toffoli was used carefully in his eight games, as you would expect for a rookie getting his first taste of the NHL. But given that he needs to be sheltered at even strength, he is not far enough along in his development yet to handle this role.
If Manchester is eliminated, he could find another spot in the bottom six over Nolan and Richardson if Sutter is willing to go with a more offensive look.
Toffoli's time is coming, and his future is bright. He's already shown tantalizing flashes of brilliance and high skill. However, he's not yet far enough along to justify a full time place in the top six as the Kings enter the playoffs.
The trials of Dustin Penner are well known. Conditioning was an issue, particularly early on, and Sutter is always looking for more consistent hustle and effort. Penner's lack of scoring makes mistakes like the ones he committed against the Sharks stand out all the more. But taking his performance on the whole, Penner has been a better fit with Carter and Richards than he's generally given credit for.
I hope this helps explain why Toffoli is now part of Manchester's playoff push, and Sutter is keeping Dustin Penner in the lineup to "play through." With Gagne gone, Penner is the only left wing suited for the role who's available.
He's no doubt capable of even more. For the Kings' sake, we hope he finds it. I think he can.